The Master (2012)
Where in the hell to begin?
The Master is about an alcoholic Navy vet with a one-track mind that’s not “all there.” He drifts through life alone, from one girl and one odd job to another, inevitably finding himself back at square one as his crazed nature gets the best of him. Then one fateful day, he finds himself on a boat that’s home to a man of many hats. In this man, the drifter finds an admirer, and in the drifter, this man finds his muse. In return for the drifter’s company and in the hopes of finding a cure for the drifter’s wicked ways, his admirer welcomes him into The Cause: an alternative faith movement that, to some, borders on cult. As the drifter cozies up to his new friend and spiritual leader, he comes to find meaning in his life and struggles to keep it as his faith is tested by those around him.
Like every Paul Thomas Anderson movie, there’s a lot of stuff here to talk about, and a lot of which is hard to articulate. Man, I’m still not really sure how I got my friend and wife to go see this with me, especially considering the garbage-grade synopsis I gave them. Something about how Philip Seymour Hoffman’s this L. Ron Hubbard figure, that Joaquin Phoenix is River Phoenix’s bother, then circled the conversation back that things about Tom Cruise shopping for girlfriends before anyone could veto my plans and make a push for Dredd. Anyway, the point of this little digression is that even having seen the movie and given it my full, undivided attention, I’m still not quite sure what it’s about. I speak for all of us.
Now, I don’t know if Anderson has gone on record about this yet, but the Scientology undertones are most definitely here for the reading int0. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, Lancaster Dodd, is a charismatic guy who writes a borderline sci-fi book about how to cure oneself through time travel, a whole lot of people end up drinking the Kool-Aid, and before he knows it, he’s a goddamn messiah. Sounds familiar, and aside from the appeal of Anderson and his cast, I feel like this is the one aspect of this story that’s putting asses in seats. But despite its pertinence, that’s not what it’s about.
If anything (and this is one man’s murky opinion), it similar to what There Will Be Blood was about (also one man’s murky opinion): two individuals from different walks of life in their struggle to gain something from one another. For Lancaster Dodd, it’s a confirmation of his life’s work, his credibility in the face of intense skepticism. For Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Freddie Quell, it’s a sense of belonging, of purpose in a world where he can’t seem to find one. It’s an interesting dynamic, more so because of the actors behind them than their actual wants and desires. At least it makes more sense than the whole religion vs. capitalism thing going on in There Will Be Blood. Am I the only one who never really thought those two things were ever at odds with one another?
Anyway, I understand why these two gravitate toward each other, even need each other at times, I just never really understood what I was supposed to get out if it. Hopefully that makes sense. If not, let’s just say that their relationship simply didn’t connect with me in ways I was hoping it eventually would. They got somewhere quick, settle down in nowhere at the next exit, even with everything that happens over the next 90 minutes.
To give you a better idea of what I’m after, before I saw this I kept on hearing a lot of Tree of Life comparisons in regards to the kind of viewing experience I was setting myself up for. In case that sentence just instantly turned you off from seeing this, don’t worry, the dinosaurs are gone now. But given how a lot of these post-movie conversations are undoubtedly going to play out, it’s actually a warranted comparison. Some people are gonna walk out of the theater in silent contemplation, think about it long and hard, then talk for hours about its deeper meanings with their open-minded, tweed-wearing friends. Others will walk out of the theater at a loss to explain their frustration, double-check their watch to make sure it wasn’t three hours that just went by, and then kick themselves for letting their friend talk them out of Dredd. While I do eventually plan on talking about this movie ’til I’m blue in the face, I admit that I was very much a member of The What-The-Hell-Was-That Club.
And it’s a weird movie. For anyone who’s seen Punch-Drunk Love, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, although as someone who adores Punch-Drunk Love for all its quirks and oddities, this here is a little much. If I were into the spoiler game, I would be more than happy to run down a list of scenes that nearly made my friends and I laugh out loud from how bizarre and random they were, but that’s what the Comments section’s for. Granted, one could argue that the odd nature of these scenes do fit quite nicely into the truly odd nature of The Cause, but the intended effect never quite hit the mark for me.
But by the same token, just because it’s weird and just because I didn’t “get it” doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing for yourself. The fact is, it’s got merits coming out of its ears. There’s an incredible degree of intention in the way Anderson tells and structures this story, there are extraordinarily gripping scenes peppered throughout, and this might be the best performance of Joaquin Phoenix’s career. From the way he contorts his face and he carries himself like a modern-day Igor, to his perpetually destructive behavior that leaves just enough room for self-preservation, you’ll hardly even recognize the guy. Dude was effing phenomenal in Two Lovers, but this is something else. More an outright transformation than a performance, really.
Philip Seymour Hoffman also commands the screen as per usual, but something about him just seemed too “on” to me. See, there is no one, absolutely no one, who knows how to yell at people the way Philip Seymour Hoffman yells at people. Not a guy you want to piss off, not if you don’t want crap in your pants. But as great as he is here, I could have done without him yelling as much as he does. Not like he’s channeling Sam Jackson or anything, it’s just hard to take anyone seriously when they scream “PIG FUCK!” at a guy after chastising him with their indoor voice for five minutes. Doesn’t really matters in grand scheme of things, but let’s just say I was far more partial to the way Joaquin handled his outbursts.
Folks, there is very much a part of me that wants to dive back into this movie to see what else I can dig up, but it pales in comparison to the part of me that wants just continue on with my life and settle with hearing what everyone else has to say. Simply put, once was enough. I’m all for movies that leave things open-ended rather than wrap it all up with a cherry on top, but this felt open-ended to a fault. Like I said, there are some great scenes here that come across as real turning points for Dodd and Quell, scenes of rage and vulnerability that make us want to commit to them. But from where I was sitting, their development as both individuals and partners never really progressed past those moments into something more full-fledged.
I know I’ve written a lot here, and while I’m still sure about how much I’ve actually said, I guess that’s kind of the point of all this rambling. With Phoenix’s performance aside, the lasting effect of The Master is that it’s a movie that begs discussion. On just one viewing, it is not an easy experience to unravel or understand. Having thought about it for days now, I’m still having trouble with what it was trying to say, what I was supposed to take away from it, and how I feel about in general. That Verdict is as subjective as they come, and glad as I am to be moving onto movies that won’t give me migraines, don’t let that deter you from trying it out for yourself and drawing your own conclusions. In the moment, it was somewhat frustrating, but in hindsight, that’s actually something I admire about it.
Something tells me that, despite my best efforts, I’m still gonna be talking about this a year from now, and just like with The Tree of Life, I will probably end up hating it for that very reason. No bueno whatsoever, but good gravy, do I hope humanity proves me wrong.