Sunday, March 3, 2013

Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master"

Ever since I watched director Paul Thomas Anderson's film Magnolia several years ago, I have been a huge fan of his work.  He directed There Will Be Blood, Punch Drunk Love, and other modern classics.  Anderson is one of those rare directors like Woody Allen or Jean-Luc Goddard or Wes Anderson who somehow gets to make movies that are pure works of art.  They lack all Hollwood cliches and bullshit.  They are the work of an artist with seemingly total creative freedom.  Most popular films these days are subject to focus groups and studio pressure to reach target audiences and other things that water down the artistic power of even great directors.  And then there's Paul Thomas Anderson, who makes mind-blowing movie after mind-blowing movie and follows none of the rules.  

Tonight I finally got around to watching Anderson's latest film, The Master, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams.  I'd seen the buzz leading up to the film.  The trailer was cryptic and intriguing, showing Phoenix bursting into fits of rage, and Hoffman looking and sounding a lot like Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.  The film clearly draws from the weird secrecy and charlatanism of scientology.  Ultimately, it's a careful study in trauma and manipulation.  It's definitely not a "feel good" movie, but it's certainly thought-provoking and packs a punch.

The movie is set shortly after World War II.  Phoenix plays a returning sailor named Freddie Quell, who has clearly been traumatized by his war-time experiences.  He can't seem to hold down a job due to his heavy drinking and random bursts of rage.  In the late 40s and early 50s, I don't think post-traumatic stress disorder was widely understood or accepted.  There was still the old school image of masculinity that did not allow for vulnerability and emotional pain.  Quell finds himself alone and drifting, still carrying the wounds of war.  

One night, Freddie drunkenly stumbles onto a boat that is carrying a group of people led by a man everyone calls "The Master."  Instead of shunning Freddie, Lancaster Dodd, aka The Master (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) accepts him and tries experimental treatments on him, called "processing."  Because of his brokenness, Freddie is wide open to suggestion and manipulation, and Dodd is a master manipulator.  He is charismatic and well-spoken and presents his half-baked philosophies with such certainty and conviction that people like Freddie listen, thinking that this man has the answers to make sense of their bewildering lives.  

Thus unfolds a kind of tragedy as Freddie is taken in by Dodd and his group which, for all its promises of healing and self-tranformation, is actually totally dysfunctional.  There is no pleasant resolution.  There is no healing.  The film takes the idea of a Master, of a spiritual leader, and deconstructs it.  Ultimately, Freddie is left right where he started.  I don't think the film is meant to be nihilistic or despairing.  Rather, I think it is meant to prompt us to look carefully at the systems we follow, to question them, and to not blindly accept simple answers to the complex and painful problems of our lives.

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