Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)

The master and the mastered.

Many have been said regarding "The Master's" conspicuous allusions to L. Ron Hubbard and his church of Scientology, especially in how 'The Cause', the fictional religious group in the film, uncannily mirrors the said religion's intricate (but ultimately questionable) teachings. But after my first viewing of the film, I can really say that "The Master" is so much more than a quasi-satirical take on a controversial religion. More importantly, it is notable to mention that the film, amid its weird psychoanalytic vibe, is a piece brewing with enthralling character dynamics that are as involving as they are alienating, realized to utmost perfection by Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams in what may be the best acting ensemble of 2012.
Fresh from his mock acting piece (chronicled in the Casey Affleck-directed film "I'm Still Here") which involves a Zach Galifianakis-like beard and some hip-hop music, Joaquin Phoenix, in one of 2012's best performances bar no role specifications, returns with a vengeance as the disturbed naval veteran Freddie Quell. A quintessential image of a wasted wanderer, Freddie does not know what to do or where to go next after a suggestively traumatic experience during the Second World War. But unexpectedly, one night after randomly boarding a yacht, he meets Lancaster Dodd, the multi-faceted leader of 'The Cause', who has developed an instant liking to Freddie's personality and, more specifically, to his paint thinner-infused booze. Slowly, they develop an erratic and openly psychoanalytic relationship that has also made an instant believer out of Freddie, even when Lancaster, as even what his own son has hypothesized, is merely making up the numerous doctrines of his religion as he goes along.
By fully imposing this complexly well-weaved relationship all throughout the film, Paul Thomas Anderson was able to make up for "The Master's" lack of narrative drive, and in that aspect, he has succeeded. But truth be told, "The Master" is no "There Will Be Blood", or does it even come close to being something akin to it. With quite a lack of thematic cohesion and a sense of narrative direction, "The Master", after a promising first half, falters both in power and energy in the second half, which leaves me very disappointed to say the least, especially considering the fact that this is my most anticipated film of 2012. Just like Joaquin Phoenix's character in the film, Paul Thomas Anderson appears to be quite lost, and it reflects in the film as it goes along, with both positive and negative repercussions.
In a way, being thematically directionless as a filmmaker adds to the overall mood and visual language of a film, and with "The Master", PTA's seemingly aimless psychological and science fiction-like philosophical jabbering is a great plus. But on the other hand, it's also the very same aspect that has squeezed out the film's strengths dry, until it reaches a conclusion that's characterized with a sort of hastened optimism.
For the record, he has never been this abstract since "Punch-Drunk Love", but also for the record, he has never been this optimistic, character development-wise, since, well, "Boogie Nights". But thanks to the film's stoic and sometimes emotionless imagery and its mercurial musical scoring that range from the relaxing to the downright unsettling, "The Master" was able to achieve a thoroughly frightening psychological undercurrent despite the fact that the film, after all, is heading towards a quite reassuring finale. Ultimately, the film, at least from where I see it, is all about the mystifying but deeply harmonizing relationship between man and religion. Unexpectedly, "The Master" has turned out to be more than just a brooding character study of a man lost between the harshness of his own reality and the emotional retreat that the so-called 'opiate of the masses' can offer; it is, after all, a quite comforting film that confronts religious cynicism and looks at it straight in the eye with the confidence of a newly reformed man.
In a way, "The Master" is a subtle criticism to those who criticize the truth to a particular religion, and for a seemingly cynical filmmaker like Paul Thomas Anderson, it is a truly welcoming sight. Now, I may sound stupid, but "The Master", with its insightful look at the interconnectedness of religion, psychology and sexuality, seems to remind me of a specific, Mormon-centric "South Park" episode entitled, well, "All About Mormons". In it, a kind-hearted Mormon boy named Gary, after hearing so much crap from Stan and his inquisitive statements regarding the veracity of Mormonism, suddenly manned up and delivered a most profound litany that is both a response to Stan and an address to us all: "Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life, and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that."
That quote, for me, is the essence of "The Master", specifically in the context of Freddie's emotional and psychological development. Yes, perhaps, my analysis of the film may be a tad too optimistic for some, but that's how I have made out the film. After sifting through much of my thoughts while writing this review, I still do think that I have arrived at a very justifiable conclusion. "The Master", in many ways, is a celebratory probe into the ever-changing nature of the human person. The only catch is that it doesn't look and feel like one.


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