I wish I could have come out of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master flush with excitement at having seen The Great American Movie so many seem to think it is, because I really respected Anderson’s attempt to work out the poetry and intricately rendered character observation of a novel into a unique, specifically cinematic voice. But for me this “story” of a man’s shattered life (and, by extension, a generation’s)-- the quest to recapture a past that swirls and churns away helplessly out of our grasp, like the turquoise turmoil in the wake of a ship chugging straight into the future, and the perilous master-mentor/father-son bond between that man and the imperious charlatan who takes him under his wing-- finally became belabored, monotonous, too eager in its obliqueness to ever find the true emotional underpinnings of this central relationship.
I put “story” in quotes because whatever story there is happens to be told not so much in the conventional narrative sense but in the close-ups of Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, searching for some sort of mooring in the aftermath of an (unseen) experience in the Navy during World War II, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Livingston Dodd, self-described writer, doctor, theoretical philosopher and “hopelessly inquisitive” renaissance man (“Just like you”) who seems to promise the access to a more stable, saved life through the nascent machinations of his brainchild, The Cause, a pseudo-religious cult of personality (whose resemblance to Scientology is, in the end, irrelevant, by the way). Those close-ups, as seen in the 70mm format in which the movie was mostly shot (camera malfunctions necessitated the occasional indulgence in 35mm), are presented with an almost hyper-real clarity and intimacy through the guidance of cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr., and they invite us to indulge in the epic battle of wills, atavistic confusion versus calculated dominance, that is being waged on the landscape of these actors' fascinating faces.
The problem is that after a while the expressive nature of that battle, as Anderson frames it, ends up tapering off into a repetition of points on the elusiveness of organized enlightenment without an apparent urgency to dramatize those points in a stronger, more effective (the garlic buzzword here might be “conventional”) way. After a while the movie begins to feel turgid and listless, as if it were caught in the churning water behind that navy boat, endlessly cycling deep and back up toward the surface without ever breaking through to air.
However, the alternative to The Master’s clinical seething doesn’t seem to offer much more reward. The movie’s big moments consist of Hoffman’s sudden violent eruptions against those—a sneering skeptic; a believer who notices a strange word replacement in a new edition of writing that seems to alter everything that has come before; and of course Freddie in his irrational explosions—who suggest that Dodd and his Cause are something other than what he passive-aggressively insists they are. These moments hint at a more conventional route toward the same sort of interior drama—Dodd, as placid and friendly as he seems, will harbor no dissent-- but even these scenes, as bold as they are against the backdrop of the movie’s reticent formal control, don’t add up to much more than momentary shout-downs, a chance for the actors to blow off steam.
Again, the anger exploding out of the cells where Dodd and Freddie find themselves incarcerated after Dodd is arrested for fraud and Freddie resists arrest on his behalf is a kissing (or yelling) cousin to Jake La Motta’s inarticulate rage as he punches the walls of his own jail cell, but here it doesn’t signify much more than two actors and their director playing at being big, self-important blowhards who like the sound of their own raised voices. To my mind that confrontation between the smug, opportunistic sway that Dodd holds over his flock and the articulate resistance to that sway is where the real meat of the matter is found. Yet by structuring the conflict as one between Dodd’s slick manipulations, his unquenchable desire to absorb those around him, and Freddie’s mumbled half-responses and flailing physical acting-out, his inability to decide whether or not absorption would be death or a step up, the real electric charge between them gets tamped down, muted, and finally dominated by Dodd’s demands-- his refusal to back up his theoretical philosophizing becomes disturbingly similar to Anderson’s own tightly controlled aesthetic. The Master is capped by a perverse denial of catharsis that feels “real” and suggests a satisfying repudiation of the sort of randomly imposed order of personality that Dodd represents, yet what it offers in replacement of that catharsis seems empty.
I’m sure this confession will tag me a Luddite in terms of the evolution of film grammar and style, but I walked out of this movie respecting Anderson’s unwillingness to play the game while simultaneously longing for the sense of a journey completed that is the hallmark of the more conventionally well-made film. (I’m not talking about Freddy’s journey, but my own with him.) The comparison is undoubtedly unbalanced and unfair, but I kept thinking how different The Godfather Part II would be if the story of Michael and Fredo had ended not with a kiss and one last fishing trip but instead a grim stare-down, a tear and Michael singing “On a Slow Boat to China” to his defeated, exhausted brother, followed by Fredo going off for a life-affirming fuck far from the shadow of the Lake Tahoe compound.
The Master is full of portent, misplaced, misplayed and even occasionally fulfilled, and its actors are certainly game. Phoenix commands attention and keeps us riveted through natural magnetism and at times sheer perversity, and Hoffman, whose self-satisfaction is sometimes indistinguishable from that of the characters he plays, finds an apt balance between the narrow purposefulness and the necessary gregariousness that cult leaders must possess. He makes the viewer understand what draws people, especially people like Freddie, to Dodd’s flickering flame even if he can’t quite get at what keeps them fluttering near its heat. For single-minded intensity, Amy Adams makes an almost subliminally powerful impression as Dodd’s blunt, non-nonsense wife, the relatively silent support system for his psychological charade. The story of this proverbial woman behind the man might have ended up being the most fascinating of all had Anderson made room in his hermetically sealed conception of the narrative for more of her than just her icy stare.
I also liked young Jesse Plemons, a ringer for Hoffman who plays Dodd’s dutiful but unimpressed son Val. Plemons, who was the sole point of amusement in this past summer’s god-awful Battleship, mostly hangs around the periphery, suggesting an indifferent heir to what might end up becoming an empire of psychological ephemera. “He’s making it all up as he goes along, you know,” he tells Freddy at one point regarding his father’s methods. It’s a singular and great moment of clarity that Freddy is of course not ready to hear, and in it Plemons mixes up a truth-teller’s burden with a barely suppressed degree of delight that this nugget is coming from the one person on whose support his grandiloquent charlatan of a dad ought to be able to count but cannot.
I have suggested above that there might (might) be an uncomfortable parallel between Dodd’s methods and those of Paul Thomas Anderson, but one thing’s for sure-- I don’t think Anderson is making it up as he goes along. There was a Q&A following last night’s screening at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, rather artlessly moderated by a woman whose name I did not catch. Among the guests were the movie’s editor, Leslie Jones, legendary production designer Jack Fisk, and Amy Adams. One of the points suggested, by both Jones and Adams at separate points in the conversation, was that as Anderson has matured (their word) as a filmmaker, his on-set methods have loosened up and he’s become more open to ideas that seem conjured on the fly or through production discussion with his collaborators. But one thing has struck me most profoundly about Anderson since Punch-Drunk Love, which I loved and which in retrospect seems more like a crucial transitional film rather than the lark many took it for at the time—whether or not his methods have become looser, more all-encompassing, the actual aesthetic of Paul Thomas Anderson has become ever more controlled, airtight, prescribed, weighty, figured out to within an inch of its life.
Anderson is hardly a joyless filmmaker—I don’t think even at their most grim the visual palette of There Will Be Blood or The Master suggest anything of the sort-- and neither could he be credibly accused of lacking humor. But his latest movies never feel like they could take off, arrive as somewhere other than a predetermined destination, could act the fool, in the way that Magnolia or Boogie Nights, to their mutual credit and detriment, often did. The Master doesn’t seem as alive to myriad possibilities and happenstance as those admittedly uneven, unwieldy, infinitely more entertaining movies do, or certainly those of Robert Altman, Anderson’s declared mentor and inspiration. It’s mounted as sober, weighty, an art film with high-profile Oscar hopes (this is a Weinstein Company release, after all), and though I would never discount the seriousness with which it is being received by a lot of people I know and read and respect, that weighty quality doesn’t bear out with the sort of philosophical grasping at straws and strained elusiveness which I saw as, to paraphrase Vin Scully, The Master’s bread and butter pitch.
I fully expect I’ll live with The Master for a while, Lancaster Dodd (and PTA?) insinuating and demanding and shouting at me, trying to break down my resistance, and maybe my initial dissatisfaction will morph into something more accepting, more appreciative than what these initial sketchy observations have yielded right now. (Such a thing has been known to happen, and heaven knows my initial less-than-rapturous response has already gotten me into trouble at home.) But I’ll reserve judgment on Anderson as the filmmaking savior of his generation for now, if this film is Exhibit A or even B, in the hopes that he makes more movies which feel like flights of life lived and observed and less like a boat adrift on waves of rhetorical questions about the same.