Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. US. 2012. R. 137 min. Weinstein Co. 35mm.
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“There is nothing like a dame. That’s what the lusty sailors sang, in “South Pacific,” going nuts in paradise. The servicemen in “The Master” are in much the same place, and the same plight. The Second World War is drawing to its exhausted close, but these young Americans still seem to be doing battle with themselves, and, rather than expressing their quandary in song, they carve a woman out of sand on the beach. One of them, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), climbs onto her and can hardly tear himself away. More than once, we will see him, in flashback, gazing at her granular breasts. She may be nothing like a dame, but Freddie, equally likely to crumble and collapse, isn’t much of a man.
The tale of his dissolution, which consumes the first portion of the movie, casts a spell as bewitching, but also as controlled, as anything that the writer and director, Paul Thomas Anderson, has wrought before. (For the first time, for extra glory and precision, he is shooting in 65mm.) We see short chapters, sliced from Freddie’s time after the Navy, showing what it meant to be knocked aside, rather than swept up, in the nation’s postwar boom. Freddie becomes a photographer in a department store, making out with a model in his darkroom, where he brews a cocktail in a chemical beaker, and then, in one extraordinary passage, taking offense at a customer—a robust and portly type, who wants his picture taken—and laying into him, as though ignited by envy at such unattainable well-being. The colors here burn with the soft, civilized half-glare that we associate with the heyday of Kodachrome—a matchless example of Anderson’s period detail being driven less by fussiness than by his unfading avidity for anything that will saturate the real.
More startling still is the sudden cut to hard, unglamorous gray-greens, and the sight of Freddie hacking the heads off cabbages in a California field. We sense that he is drifting not because jobs are scarce but because no regular slot can hold him or stop him exploding from within; hence the catch-your-breath sequence that sees Freddie bursting through a dark doorway, which is framed like the final shot of John Ford’s “The Searchers,” and then sprinting and panting across the brown ridges of plowed earth, the camera travelling beside him at a pace that would have left Ford in the dust. And so the Anderson patterns, familiar to fans of “Magnolia” and “Boogie Nights,” reassert themselves: elegy followed by convulsion, stasis interrupted by the chronic need for speed, nerves no sooner gathered than lost. Where, we ask ourselves, will Freddie Quell find rest?
The answer comes, as so often in this movie, on the water. Some enchanted evening, in 1950, Freddie wanders past a wharf, where a fancy yacht is moored, lit like a Christmas tree. Having nothing better in mind, he hops on board, and the ship sails off, beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, with the Stars and Stripes, at its stern, barely visible under a dying sky. Next morning, the stowaway is introduced to a fellow who describes himself, in the first of many questionable statements, as “the commander” of the vessel—and then, for good measure, as a writer, a doctor, a theoretical philosopher, and a nuclear physicist. “But, above all, I am a man,” he adds, instantly hitting the pure note of solemn, self-persuading bull. The same is true of the pose in which Freddie initially sees him: pooled in light, brow clutched, pencil in hand, one careful comma of blond hair dangling down, as if posing for the portrait of a thinker. This is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the founder and magnetic core of the Cause—a cluster of folk who believe, among other things, that our souls, which predate the foundation of the Earth, are no more than temporary residents of our frail bodily housing. Any relation to persons living, dead, or Scientological is, of course, entirely coincidental.
Dodd warms without ado to Freddie, and you spend the rest of this fretful, elegant movie wondering why. The current that flows between them is far more pedagogic than erotic, as the title would suggest, yet the clinginess of it seems to embarrass and perplex not just the people who surround them—led by Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), and his son, Val (Jesse Plemons)—but the two men themselves. Their first point of contact is booze. Freddie still makes a mean hell-brew, pouring in whatever takes his fancy, including paint thinner, and Dodd develops a taste for it, and thus for the risky, id-laced flavor of Freddie’s whole spirit. They sit alone, in shadow, belowdecks. “Would you care for some informal processing?” Dodd asks, like a waiter offering cream and sugar. He is referring to the method whereby recruits to the Cause can be cleansed of whatever faults and stains continue to foul their existence—nagging Freddie about his “past failures” and calling him a “silly animal.” Freddie is told not to blink, a vein bulges and beats in his forehead, and he slaps himself hard, three times, as if trying to awake from the bad dream of being who he is, or was. The session subsides. “Close your eyes,” Dodd says.
Three things must be said about this. One, the scene picks up on a simple but potent refrain that has rung through Anderson’s work from the beginning. The first sequence, in his first feature, “Hard Eight” (1997), consists of Philip Baker Hall giving coffee and a cigarette to John C. Reilly, in a diner, and making him an offer he can’t refuse. Whether it was a scam, or a path to salvation, was left beautifully suspended, like smoke, and the same uncertainty lingers in the air of “The Master.” This leads to the second point: namely, that we are watching not a scalding exposé of a particular cult but something far more delicate. Dodd has, whatever the backdrop of nonsense behind his ideas, brought some respite and relief to Freddie, and—to judge by the mood, if not the vocabulary—we could be attending any encounter between shrink and patient, in the therapeutic wave that swelled, à la mode, through the society of that time.” (Anthony Lane, The New Yorker)
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