Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Master (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson continues on a suspicious American arc with "The Master", a fine character study that echoes his other hit "There Will Be Blood" in its historical, dark foreboding. Anderson has become as canonized in relating picturesque American tales as Ray Bradbury, Frank Capra or Steven Spielberg. Anderson's panoramic scope is as rich and as bold as a James Rosenquist billboard and his tales are usually always intriguing.

Here, he relates the odd co-dependent relationship between a former Navy man who is a shifty alcoholic Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and the self made guru and occasional libertine, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is bizarre enough here as befitting any Paul Thomas Anderson character. Dodd is not nearly as pathological or psychotic as Daniel Day-Lewis is in "There Will Be Blood" , however with his big head and lugubrious body like a fleshy a billowing cumulus cloud, Dodd makes a threatening and formidable 1%. Slaving away at his typewriter and fanatically orating his sermons, Dodd is both an electromagnetic Hemingway at times and a sinister John Kellogg, from "The Road to Wellville" in addition to his more recognizable model in Scientology, the founder L. Ron Hubbard.

As colorful as Hoffman is here, this film is clearly Phoenix's alone with his wide range of emotions portrayed. As a 1950s era Navy Vet, his character wears a perpetual sideways sneer as if he were forged from a land of rotting flowers, the earth has divorced Freddy and cast him into the sea, and his oversize clothes drape around him like a cold bunch of Autumn leaves. Phoenix's performance is potent and visceral and he is suffused with an angry power. The best moments are when he tries to engage in physical combat because of frustration. He turns into a human pretzel becoming entangled in chairs and other inanimate objects as well as his created opponents that are attacked over nothing important. Freddy is a drunk and his biggest combatant is his own body. At times Phoenix's role reaches the Chaplinesque; he melts slapstick shadows into frightful bedfellows. His body is always moving and his sleep is phantasmagoric.

"The Master" might be seen as a Jack Kerouac or John Steinbeck-type version of "There Will Be Blood". There is a cold and dangerous ambition felt in both stories. And both also have characters that take no prisoners and offer no apologies.

In addition to Phoenix and Hoffman, Amy Adams also exhibits a solid supporting role as Dodd's wife: a wacked out utilitarian obsessive, as maniacal as she is robotic.

Anderson's milieu is of a cold chromium America just before it ventures into Pop Art. Freddy Quell is a wiggling wolf of The Id, that exists to subvert the conformity of the 1950s. Both Quell and Dodd could just as well be found in an existential Patricia Highsmith crime novel as much as a Paul Thomas Anderson film.

"The Master" is an epic and volatile story of two people trying to forge their own psychological worlds. One is all absorbing like a Suburban Zeus. The other is a bent Old Nick: sideways and tricky who sways through his life like the mercurial and sluggish home-made booze that he drinks. Both are intimately watchable.

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