Monday, 26 November 2012

[Review] The Master - Unlocking the Past

A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future - until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master is perplexing, mesmerizing, maddening and quite possibly genius. A cerebral film that refuses to be categorized, analyzed or defined, it is, at it's heart, a love story between two post-Freud, post-war figures of the American man. 

The first of which is Freddie Quell, he is a man of impulse and instinct. We meet him at the close of World War Two where he is stationed off the coast of Japan. It is here that the primal charge that dominates his actions is most befitted, a life of unrestricted physicality. Yet underneath his edged masculinity lies deep psychological scarring; would he, driven by a subconscious urge, cut off his hand as he batters coconuts for their milk, just to see how it bleeds? Or, as he fingers the cast of a woman made from sand he conceals a violence through a pretend laughter, but the give away is in his eye. Freddie is not simply a case of 'not ready for society' but a reversal, society is the one who is not ready for him. Perhaps twenty years later in the late 1960s would his volition be more accepted. However it is condition that the scientists and society do not understand yet. To them he is, among many others, evidence of a dark failure within America's triumph. One the country can not acknowledge in a post-war recovery period, so they are given their place, and they must adjust. Drunk on his self-brewed moonshine, Freddie cannot find his place, and after accidentally poisoning his friend, he rejects it.

How exactly he finds himself on the pier that would begin his relationship with Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is left ambiguous by Anderson. Perhaps it was Dodd that was drawn to him. His borrowed cruise ship looms into focus, presenting itself to Freddie and the world as a figure of American wealth and of the opportunist. It sails into the blue black night, party a blaze and flag at full mast.  

On board, and after an implied night of boozing, Freddie is introduced to Dodd, who recognizes a skewered sense of liberation buried within his impulsive actions and scars. He adopts him into the ranks of his scientific religious movement, The Cause. Dodd is equal parts romanticist and charlatan, he recognized the potential in the post-war atmosphere for a new market of self-fulfillment through pop-psychology and spiritualism, only to find himself trapped by a group of followers who take his ideas more seriously than he ever did, spurred on by a cold and domineering wife played by a ferocious Amy Adams, her performance has been overlooked but is equally phenomenal. To Dodd, Freddie is something of an oasis, and in return he looks to cure him through his methods, even though it becomes apparent that Freddie is beyond their help and even stands to be a danger to himself and his movement as well. 

The film has received much attention for it's parallels between The Cause and the Church of Scientology which emerged at the same time, with Dodd being the stand in for L. Ron Hubbard. What the movement actually does isn't particularly important, and Anderson is often to keen to expose the holes of Dodd's persona. To hastily does he resort to the child like 'Pig fuck!' when confronted by simple skepticism. However this is not a deconstruction or criticism of the Scientology, but an examination of who it targeted and what drove people to it.

Anderson's work is struck by the recurring theme of surrogate fatherhood, here it is a product of Freudian subconscious. Freddie's psychological issues stem from his abandonment of his father and incestuous relationship with his Aunt. This led to the self-fulfillment failure of the relationship with his muse, Dorris. And in one sequence Dodd becomes a figure of Oedipal resentment as he dances with the women of his congregation, for Freddie the women are naked and overlooking him for the father. Dodd's methods of 'processing' are primitive, bordering on a form of psychological torment as he systematically insists Freddie repeat a test from the beginning everytime he blinks. Gradually however his answers become more engaged. He produces just enough evidence for one to begin to believe. 

Shot on the cinematic holy grail 65mm and presented in 70mm at the Odeon, West End, Anderson's film is surprisingly light on the grandiose scale that the format is usually reserved for, it has its more elaborate visual moments, but the real key here is his close-ups and focus. He captures every detail of the face. Nuanced expressions, twitches of subconscious trapped beneath the surface bubble to the top as Phoenix's right eye quivers. Shot on an extremely shallow depth of field, people and objects fade in and out of focus creating a spatially constrictive environment that centers on the actions of the actors, allowing them to inhabit the world with a sense of unhinged grandeur. The score is the work of Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood who uses disjointed chords and nervous rhythms to offset the drama and creating a fractured tension, an effect which he used to similar effect on Anderson's previous film There Will Be Blood

Lacking any semblance of narrative structure, the film is driven by relationship between it's two thoroughly unlikable, but rather tragic heroes. The result is Anderson's least accessible, but perhaps his greatest film. 

The two meet for the last time in England, and as Freddie rejects Dodd's last attempt to pull him beneath his wing, the two react within accordance to themselves; Dodd softly serenades him, trying to part with bloated grace but barely concealing an anger spawned by his adopted son and protege's ultimate defiance. Freddie reverts to a more primal urge and picks up a girl in a local pub. He toyingly samples her on some 'processing' of his own, is this a subversion or a regression, it is left ambiguous. The film ends by revisiting the image of Freddie caressing the woman in the sand, a past life, left but not forgotten. Like wise, it is Anderson who is staring back into a damaged era, searching for the answers to our own, instead he finds a pattern woven into the human condition over a millennium; the sins of the master have been passed down to the subject, from one charlatan to the next.




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