Saturday, December 1, 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson: The Master

Joaquin Phoenix, The Master, TWC, 2012.

Dropping into indifferent multiplexes with the force of a 70 mm spell, P.T. Anderson's much-anticipated new picture, The Master, offers up a head-spinning mixture of history, mythos, pathos, and meandering narrative ties.

The binding element of the picture is the casting of Joaquin Phoenix in the leading role.  As Freddy Quell, a wandering product of the Great Depression-cum-Second World War, Phoenix gives a shattering turn which is the stuff legends are made of. His method-induced performance feels truly authentic; it recalls the greatest turns of Brando, Clift, and Dean. His gut feeling becomes ours as he wanders from job to job, the causal "lost man" of the 20th century. This section is the film's richest.

As he encounters an L. Ron Hubbard surrogate, portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in a hypnotic character turn, and becomes caught up in the gestating "religion" cash cow he has devised, Anderson loses traction. Specific sequences are brilliant; altogether it is uneven. And yet, even Anderson's flaws can be more stimulating than the average Joe's triumphs. Amy Adams offers unflinching support as Hoffman's stand by her man wife, although a couple of her scenes felt uncomfortably gratuitous.

Anderson began his career as arguably the brightest young American cinematic talent on the rise in the 90's. His passion for the kinesis of celluloid, as witnessed in his visceral homages to Altman and Scorsese (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia) as well as Blake Edwards (Punch Drunk Love) remain some of the best American movies of the past twenty five years. Now, with the excellent but flawed There Will Be Blood, and now The Master, he has moved on to homaging the less rugged and lived in, and more classically stylized, cinematic worlds of Kubrick and Malick, two of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. Not to mention the literature of Hemingway and Steinbeck.

The Master affords us a glimpse at a great director's inspired yet uneven universe, and even more so a great actor's greatest incantation; Quell and the pain inside of him, are most vivid in the opening and closing sequences. Stationed in the Pacific, his fear and desire shape the loneliness to come; Anderson pays tribute to Terrence Malick's war master stroke The Thin Red Line, and the art form becomes transparent, crystal clear.

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