Sunday, 4 November 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master

It feels as if the film ends mid sentence. The words The Master appear as they did at the beginning of the film. The credits roll. It’s an ending but not as an audience normally experiences it. In a packed Leicester Square cinema, the audience sat momentarily frozen, unsure how to respond. There was a communal sense of bewilderment at the beauty and strangeness of what we had just seen.

The friend I went with admitted to getting bored three quarters of the way through and wanted there to be more “ordinary” characters. He described it as “a mood piece...think, late Kandinsky.” I don’t disagree with his reflex review (and the need to find analogies with other artists and artistic forms) but, twenty four hours later and having allowed my initial responses to settle, I think there might be more to say:

1. You are not going to see a better performance on screen this year than Joaquin Pheonix’s war-damaged ex-sailor, Freddie Quell. This is acting of such feral ferocity and rawness that it shreds the “method acting” handbook and takes film performance into another territory. This is not acting, this is possession. In his portrayal of Quell, Pheonix exposes the terrible damage to the soul caused by the lacerating shrapnel of life – a failed romance, the horrors of war, existential rootlessness, Godlessness. Quell is a man in spiritual and psychological tatters.

Pheonix's Quell is a portrait of an outsider – a man to whom life has become something alien and he an alien to it – but without any existential romanticism. Though terribly damaged, Quell clings to a scintilla of hope: that he is loveable, that someone might love him. Your cinema ticket is worth every penny just to see how Pheonix conveys longing and hurt in his wounded-animal eyes.

2. There is not a frame in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film that is not beautiful. It has a numinous quality. Shot in 70mm format and designed with meticulous attention to period detail, The Master definitively answers the question of whether a film can be a work of art with a resolute, “Yes, of course, it can and this is such a work of art.” The Master is an aesthetic treasure that will be looked at, studied and commented on in decades to come.

3. Contrary to internet reports The Master has very little to say about Scientology or the dubious motives of those who found religious movements. The Master is a bromance but not of the comforting sort we have become accustomed to. This is a bromance with barbs and thorns that cut and nick. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, the founder of a religious movement called The Cause, uses Quell as a guinea pig for his experiments in spiritual “processing.” He claims to be able to heal Quell. For the damaged Quell, this promise is attractive. He sees Lancaster Dodd’s new religion as the way to restore some sort of psychic stability in his life. This is not a friendship based on affection but one based on the different needs of the two men. The need of the charlatan to believe his own lies and to have his lies believed. The need of the outsider to find a way inside the city walls. The Master is an oblique study in neediness.

4. There are no simple narrative arcs or easily comprehensible character motivations. The film is a frustrating watch and for this reason comes close to reality as we experience it, where so much is hidden from our immediate understanding and slips our conceptual grasp. So much of who we are remains a mystery, at once, fascinating and terrifying. If people find The Master boring and frustrating, it is because, in one sense, it is exactly that. Anderson refuses to pander to the audience’s need for the security of conventional story-telling. Instead, he delivers something that is closer to a parable or tone poem where depths of meaning are released with every viewing.

5. Why should you go and see The Master? Joaquin Pheonix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and the uncompromising originality of the writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson.

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