The Master (USA, 2012)

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson. Okay, so P.T. Anderson is a cinematic genius, a modern day Kubrick, blah blah blah. I don’t want to get into that. Suffice it to say that There Will Be Blood was one of my favourite movies this decade (last decade?), and P.T. knows what he’s doing. The Master is definitely more in that vein than Boogie Nights or Magnolia or anything. Still, I certainly wasn’t as affected by this movie as the last one, and I think I kind of know why. It’s probably a lot to do with humour—which after the stark austerity of There Will Be Blood, is easy to forget was a major force in the rest of his stuff, especially Boogie Nights and Punch Drunk Love. He’s a director who likes to laugh, and it’s a relief to get some chuckles in this film after the almost wholly brutal and numbing display of Daniel Day Lewis’s milkshake drinking oilman (come to think of it, there may be a film paper in there somewhere about latent traces of humour in that film). Philip Seymour Hoffman, another guy who gets praise out the wazoo, was really really really hamming it up in this film. I mean, he could have done the same thing in a Will Ferrell movie, in a Tim and Eric skit—you guys remember him in Big Lebowski right? In this movie he’s doing his goofy, loud, exaggerated, flustered guy who yells a lot, which is kind of the only thing I’ve ever seen him do. If this blog had been alive when I saw the great Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, I would have tirode about my disenchantment with modern Hollywood yelling-substitution-for-acting formula that seems to win Oscars (ie: Sean Penn in Mystic River). There are two points where Hoffman’s Master character totally, utterly breaks face and yells, bursts out loudly in a fairly comical way. The point was to show that this character is deeply flawed, that he’s unable to intellectually defend his “science”, and that basically he’s a charlatan. Now, leaving aside the question of whether or not the film could have been a bit more illuminating than the groundbreaking thesis that “Scientology is a transparent fraud”, I guess I would have liked at least for the head honcho, the Master of the religion, to at least be intellectually respectable, for there to be some ambiguity. Call me picky, but yes, dammit, I like ambiguity. I don’t expect it from Iron Man, and I don’t expect it from Tarantino, but I was kind of hoping for it with the latest P.T. Anderson joint. To be fair, you get a fairly compelling character in the form of his wife (Amy Adams), and a pretty damn masterful performance out of my man Joaquin. Phoenix’s protagonist Freddy is as inscrutable a character as you’re likely to see in any Hollywood film, perhaps even more so than Daniel Plainview. Freddy is pretty simple, pretty drive-oriented, but he’s also fairly insane, and by the film’s end, I still can’t tell remotely what’s really going on with him. So that’s pretty cool. It goes without saying that this is a beautiful looking movie, and you should see it for that alone. And it is a very compelling (if long) narrative. As with all of his movies, go see for yourself, and as with all of his movies, time will probably tell.

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