THE MASTER, Paul Thomas Anderson (2012)
Last night I went to the movies for the first time this year 2013. There’s a lot of upcoming film releases which have already caught my attention, so seems that there’s gonna be a pretty busy season ahead, which I like, because my foursquare application reminded me I hadn’t gone to a movie theatre for almost 3 months, this is, since I attended some sessions at Sitges Film Festival. My bad!
After almost two months bombed by billboards exposing perfumes, beautiful women in bras, and Xmas season films addressed to kids, the new year brought the invasion of promo posters of the film The Master. How could it be ignored with Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Thomas Anderson right in front of my eyes? Impossible, I had to see that.
It’s been long time since I assumed Joaquin Phoenix to be one of the greatest actors of his generation, able to transmit deep feelings, and always enveloping his characters in a dark halo, somehow tortured and frustrated.
People always remember him for Gladiator or his stunning interpretation of Johnny Cash in Walk The Line, but it was first with Shyamalan‘s weak The Village, and then interpreting himself in the mockumentary I’m Still Here directed by his brother in law Cassey Affleck, when I realized I really digged this guy. For Phoenix, playing the role of Cash was easy, he seemed comfortable in the role of this legend, and I loved him right away. However his performances in Shyamalan’s failure and when offering an unseen (fake) side of the actor risking too much in his personal experiment, made me think of a hard gambler and an adventurer.
Regarding PTA, I wouldn’t say it’s a matter of blind faith, but since I was charmed with the overwhelming film Magnolia, I’ve been always following his steps.
Frank Quell, who’s been sailing for long time serving the US Navy as a mechanic taking part in World War II against the Japanese, is finally dismissed from service, better said, retired, due to a long record of mental disorder episodes and sex obsessive behavior which make him unfit for war times. Now it’s time to rehabilitate into society but his mental issues and his heavy alcoholism bringing out aggressive behavior only cause him problems and do not allow him to adapt. From a photographer at a mall, to cabbage collector in the country, sooner or later he ruins something and has to get away pursued by people.
One freezing night he sneaks into a private yacht, whose commander happens to be Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of The Cause, a philosophical movement, based on the concept of the soul living many lives in different bodies throughout the existence of the human kind on Earth, and the regression therapies recovering the past traumas to wake up and heal.
Dodd will adopt Quell as his protégée and will start using him as a guinea pig, starting with a very revealing informal processing which justifies in some way why the sailor has become a drifter and a misfit. In exchange, on his command, Quell will prepare his secret alcoholic poison, Dodd is so enthusiastic with.
From this moment, he will become part of the family even though Dodd’s wife, the manipulative Peggy (Amy Adams), his son and other members, do not feel comfortable with the stranger’s odd behavior.
As for The Cause, the movement will become more prominent among high society, no matter the ideas and values transmitted are weak and lack of rational sense, as sympathizers find it attractive enough as to adopt it as their guide to happiness and mental awakening, contributing through donation to the support of the movement.
The Master deals with several different aspects to take into account: first, the decline and evolution of Quell, second his relationship with Dodd, The Cause inspired in Scientologist movement, the relationship of Dodd and Peggy…and so on.
Also the film, resembling There Will Be Blood, is clearly marked by different stages. First, the mental disorder episodes of Quell while on a mission, and the elaboration of its poisonous beverage, second the attempt of an insane man to rehabilitate into society with no supervision nor care received, the encounter and adoption of Dodd and his family, the adaptation and rehabilitation, the final enlightenment and the separation of Quell and the family.
John Quell is the most remarkable character, and his journey, the main plot in the history. His mental scars from war have turned him into a sick man, unable to adapt into society. He is, in essence, pure white trash, a scoundrel with no goals in life, no interests of any kind, and no feelings towards anyone. His only motivation in life is to prepare his poisonous booze and fuck whenever it’s possible. He used to be with that beautiful girl in his hometown, Doris, but considering his condition, unable to behave normal, he knows it’s not possible to get back to her.
When he meets Dodd and becomes his protégée, all of a sudden he’s granted access to privileges and luxuries he couldn’t dream of earlier: clothes, food, wealth, “happiness”…He just have to be part of the experiments the master improvises, even though they don’t make much sense most of times. A simple mind crippled guy as he is, can only feel grateful to the man who gave him a hand, thus, whenever contrary voices rise criticizing and accusing Dodd of being a liar, Quell will always act as the physical force responsible to defend his master. Submission and gratitude develop into comradeship, dependence and sort of friendship, however, once the poor man finally comes to terms with himself, finding some piece of mind which allows him to put himself together, Quell realizes Dodd is working on a big lie, and will leave The Cause.
Some reviews have been too hard on Joaquin Phoenix’s interpretation of Quell as too exaggerated and affected. I particularly think he manages to transmit all the troubles and insanity this guy oozes. It’s necessary and I think he’s realistic. Outbursts and violent attacks are overwhelming, and those intense scenes of processing and confrontation with Lancaster Dodd are impressive.
Regarding Dodd, the more prominent his Cause becomes, and the more renown he gets, the more we see it’s actually Peggy the one who commands, decides and addresses the movement. As soon as she concludes Quell is hard to tame, she’s not longer interested in him and thinks of him as a threat, capable of ruining what she and her husband have been hard achieving for so long time.
It’s interesting the issue of the philosophical movement, and the ability of manipulating weak people charming them as to influence their minds to believe what you want them to believe.
We’ve always been warned of these associations seeking for our dependence and momeny, offering the ultimate truth about life, or about death, the justification to our sufferings, and whatever a hopeless soul would require. Weak people can be easily abducted for their purposes, living in a state of denial and mind induced lethargy. But what is really the turning point which make some of these adapts to suddenly realize the reality they’re living in such environment is not real?
It’d be interesting to dive into the origin of sects, their motivations to be created, and when was the first time one person discovered that creating a movement based on something attractive to some potential victims could be profitable. At the end of the day, if carried out in a harmless way, the idea of providing this mind and soul shelter to someone in need shouldn’t be bad, leaving all the religious issues aside. In The Master, even though everything Lancaster Dodd preaches about is pure fake and nonsense, the truth is that, regardless the stupid experiments performed, Quell improves and manages to keep his anxiety and obsessions under control.
All these sects gather interesting psychologic, philosophic and anthropologic points of view in my opinion. Truth is that, since I was a kid and heard of them I’ve always felt fascinated for them.
The Master is not an easy film. I think none of Paul Thomas Anderson are, because of all the side plots and aspects involved, the slow development of the stories, and the excessive length of his films. Many people are not able to focus on stories with so many details to assimilate and get easily tired and bored. The Master is impressive in terms of interpretation, flashbacks are very graphic, and the main story, even though can be confusing at some points and could be dealt with in a different way, it’s definitely worth it. It is one of these films likely to improve every time you review it being able to differ among stories, understand unnoticed details, and focus on the characters in the film. It won’t take me too long before I repeat.
And yes, it smells like some Oscar awards and others to come.