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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 21, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 38
The Master an invigorating intellectual banquet
Arts & Entertainment
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The Master an invigorating intellectual banquet

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE MASTER
Opens September 21


Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master isn't an easy sit. Its themes are all over the map and what it's talking about is never entirely clear. Most of all, it's never a certainty whose story it is trying to tell. There are three characters competing for screen time - two of them sharing numerous tête-à-têtes and one of them in roughly 90 percent of the scenes - all of them at one point or another the central figure driving the narrative. In other words, this movie is a challenge, so don't say you weren't warned before buying your ticket.

Here's hoping numerous movie lovers do just that. The Master is one of the most invigorating, thought-provoking, gloriously acted, and meticulously composed motion pictures I've ever seen. The film is a psychological whirligig leaping from idea to idea, thought to thought, and concept to concept with wildly invigorated abandon. Anderson never misses a beat, never allows a step to be out of place, all the while presenting a scenario that's as tough-minded as it is ephemeral.

The basics concern a psychologically scarred World War II vet named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) with a penchant for self-destruction and a talent for transforming the most noxious of liquids, like gasoline or paint thinner, into strongly pungent alcoholic blends guaranteed to produce instantaneous intoxication. By chance or by fate, he comes across Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his latest wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). Dodd runs around the country with his family in tow, extolling the virtues of his book The Cause, a belief system he's come up with that supposed helps those who follow it master their emotions and take control of their lives.

Why does Lancaster take Freddie in? What does he see in him that makes him want to care for the man and bring him into the Dodd family fold? Is he nothing more than a lost puppy - someone the charismatic leader, who some believe is dangerous charlatan, can command and control at whim? Or is he a comrade, a potential fellow leader who can help The Cause enter the mainstream, increasing the group's following through his dedication and devotion?

A STUDY IN COMMUNICATION
To be frank, The Master does not answer, at least not fully, any of these questions. More importantly, however, is that it doesn't actually need to. It is the debate - the discussions generated, how people converse one to another - that is the focal point of the majority of the narrative.

For my money, I believe Anderson isn't so much interested in religion or cults or psychological scars, isn't enamored with how leaders bring followers into their fold, or how supporters manipulate events to make their beliefs more real and tactile even when all evidence points to the contrary. Instead, he wants to maintain focus on discourse, on how we tackle differing opinions. It is the state of interpersonal communication, I think, that is most on the director's mind, events throughout the picture showcasing the different styles each character uses to get their respective point of view across.

I could be wrong, of course, and like all great cinema The Master requires - demands - multiple viewings to completely understand its meaning. But for me, many of the conversations taking place between Dodd, his wife, Quell and with others, both followers of The Cause and those who stand against it, all signify Anderson's belief as to how modern forms of communication and debate have failed us. The setting may be shortly after World War II, but how people react to one another, the way they lash out, the way they embrace their opinions even when all evidence shows them false, could just as easily be those showcased on today's cable news programs or within our era's political debates. What begins as intelligent reasoning quickly morphs into angry recrimination, with understanding almost impossible to come by when otherwise rational people become feral nincompoops impossible to comprehend.

TOP-NOTCH ACTING
Speaking of feral, Phoenix is outstanding. This is the kind of titanic, superhuman performance that defies any sort of pigeonholing or easy descriptions. He doesn't care if the audience likes Freddie, doesn't give a crap if anyone relates to him. All the same, he digs into corners of the man's recesses that are as uncomforting as they are mesmerizing, everything moving in a calamitous direction impossible to avoid and even more difficult to predict. The emotions he mines, the places he allows himself to go, all of it is as freewheeling and as unpredictable as they come.

Hoffman and Adams equal him, and to say all three are immediate Oscar frontrunners is something of an understatement. But what they're doing, the balance they are attempting to maintain, all of it runs in fascinating contradiction to Phoenix's high-wire act. It's an astonishing bit of acting prowess, each actor attempting something here that's as exhilarating as it is dazzling.

With Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and especially There Will Be Blood, Anderson has already announced himself as an old-school cinematic auteur of the first degree. Here, his attention to detail, his handling of all technical aspects including cinematography, production design, music, and editing, is, in a word, extraordinary. As bewildering and as perplexing as the meaning behind it all might be, the sense of control - the feeling that not a single facet of this production is out of place or not exactly what the director intended - is never in doubt.

I can't say The Master will be for everyone. I can't say all who see it will wander out of the theater feeling a sense of euphoria or exhilaration. But that doesn't make the film any less spectacular or any less essential. Anderson's opus is easily his most challenging yet, and the food for thought it puts on the table is a sumptuous banquet any cinephile worth their salt owes it to themself to taste.

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