Saturday, October 6, 2012
[REVIEW] "The Master" is an Empty, Soulless Yet Well-Acted Cult Drama
It takes a certain level of genius to take a perfectly interesting and timely subject and make it significantly uninteresting, unengaging and aimless. But in The Master, director Paul Thomas Anderson does just that.
The filmmaker, who once brought us such gems as Magnolia and Boogie Nights, returns with a story about the obscure Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a 1950s WWII veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder that he tries to drown in a bottle of homemade liquor. In the beginning of the movie, the audience learns most about him in paranoid flashbacks which reveal his mother to be mentally unstable and a possibly incestuous relationship with his aunt--all of which we're led to assume contributes to his social and moral ineptitude.
With frequent outbursts and drunken tirades, Freddie drifts from one location to the next in a series of slow-moving scenes that quickly become repetitive, driving home the idea that he is indeed crazy. While that's happening, we're also being treated to juxtaposed scenes that feature Freddie standing out in a group of supposed fellow ne'er-do-wells wreaking havoc on a beach. Freddie is appropriately deflowering a figure of a woman made out of sand. Seriously.
None of the beach scenes are ever fully explained, even though they do pop up again here and there throughout the movie (the audience quickly learns to ignore them and focus on trying to find the real story here). But things start to become interesting when Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) enters the picture as the title character, self-made thinker, a man who's concocted an unsubstantiated pool of thought and has somehow garnered a following (which includes his wife Peggy, played by Amy Adams in another wide-eyed yet deliberate performance). Lancaster sees the wandering Freddie as someone vulnerable and weak enough to lure into his enterprise. But one whose past demons will present a welcome challenge for him, a new project for him to work on.
What is compelling here is the level of ease it took for someone like Freddie to join a cause like this, without his full consent of what he was doing, what Lancaster was doing, and where it was all going to lead. Lancaster and his movement was just another pit stop in Freddie's deliriously redundant and empty life. It was a natural progression that never made an indent in his life, to Lancaster's dismay. Even though Freddie exhausted much energy defending Lancaster's movement, even getting arrested with him (which led to the movie's most perfectly directed and acted scene), he never quite committed to--or ever understood--the cause. To him, it was more the family element and domestic stability in which he could seek solace.
But that isn't further explored as it should have been. In fact, it is the extremely plateaued level of emotion that this slow-moving film basks in for the majority of its running time (which is unfortunately over two hours). As Lancaster continues to lose his patience with Freddie, who's not any closer to being "healed," the audience will lose patience with the progression the film takes. Every day that passes introduces us to another day's worth of fruitless "lessons" with Freddie that lead nowhere. Basically, Lancaster and his wife try to convert Freddie to no avail, using various silly techniques (like pacing back and forth in a room in order to feel something) and Freddie has a temper tantrum about it. Every day that scene is repeated in a circular rotation in the exact same way. It's frustrating to watch, and doesn't bring us any closer to the point of the movie.
In fact, that's another area where the film fails--the lack of emotional investment for any character. There is ultimately no one here the audience cares to root for, and no one who made a big enough emotional connection to care otherwise. Not only are the characters unlikeable, they're strange, which is to be expected with their cult-like subsistence. But Peggy and her gang of other female recruits especially aren't even peculiar and interesting; they're completely devoid of personality and any edge. You simply feel nothing for them, good or otherwise. Is that what it's like? If so, why did the superior Martha, Marcy, Mary Marlene give similar characters so much more depth?
At least the performances, specifically from Phoenix and Hoffman, kept you engaged enough to want to finish the rest of the movie. Because, even where Anderson's story flat-lined, the performances were always committed. Phoenix, in arguably his major comeback role, reminds audiences why he is one of the best actors of our generation. Full of energy, deeply sad and physically and emotionally decomposed, you simply won't be able to take your eyes off him. Even in his most eccentric scenes (and the many that were completely mundane), there was something about the aggression in his eyes and his stubborn snarl that make you want to reach out to him.
Hoffman's performance, closely resembling his own in Doubt, is a disturbingly eloquent portrayal of a man whose character we merely get to see in spurts. But Hoffman makes us want to, even though the story doesn't allow it. His delivery of Lancaster's final speech to Freddie at the end of the movie, which includes the line "If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world" pinpoints the root of his character and what may be the essence of the whole movie. That speech almost makes the previous two hours or so of the movie worth the price of admission. Almost.
It might already be an Oscar favorite, but The Master isn't worth the hype it's been receiving as a whole movie, mostly due to its aggressively bland screenplay. It's not good enough to merely present nicely shot scenes that have no depth and feature characters that you're not ever convinced to care about. But, with its two lead actors, it can at least boast the pairing of two excellent portrayals of men who complemented one another in a very special way.