44 Films: Film 4 of 44: "The Master" (2012)
Film 4 of 44:
The Master (2012)
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
I like to imagine that, in one fleeting conversation during filming of the The Master, someone might have asked if the title was a nod to its writer-director and/or its lead actor(s). Considering the mystifying performances and immersive film that Paul Thomas Anderson, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman created, it's not a stretch.
Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a military seaman, freshly returned to 1950 USA from World War 2. He flaunts his psychological battle scars with a frightening flair; imbibing liberal amounts of liquor (most of which he makes himself from such ingredients as paint thinner and torpedo fluid), expressing sexual yearning with juvenile crudity, and breaking into fights with the civilians he now has to work for. His tumultuous and drunken haze is interrupted when he wanders into a cruise ship and encounters Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), the head of a scientific-cum-religious group called 'The Cause'. Quell is enamoured by Dodd's charisma while Dodd develops a taste for Quell's moonshine, and a bond is established immediately. P.T. Anderson lets the relationship between these two men drift in wildly interchanging directions. It's a journey full of fracas and weirdness, as you would expect when a feral force meets a rooted object. The formalities these men go through cause permanent chinks in the relationships between Dodd and his followers (and detractors), and between Quell and himself.
Not a single scene in this film is wasted. Even when the activities are confusing and vague, you can feel things shift and move forward. Phoenix displays an uninhibited commitment to his role; his spine staunch in its hunch, and his voice exiting his twisted mouth in stuffy and guttural tones, like every thought is so dense that it has to be squeezed out into the world. You will marvel at Hoffman's grounded and colourful turn as a disturbing paternal influence, who will remain unfazed in the fire not because he is ignorant of its incendiary nature, but because he is assured of his own domesticating abilities.
You will ask yourself as you see this, why we choose what (or who) to believe in, ascribe to, and fight for. You'll wonder whether we are really as free as we think. As you witness Quell get broken in odd and woeful ways, you will wonder like I did, what makes docile conformists of independent human beings, and whether it's the fringed loose cannons who really know what's up.
Finally, you will miss Mr. Hoffman dearly. His sort of talent comes around rarely. It's heart-rending when it leaves way before its time. This film's title isn't reference to a character. It's to its fallen actor.
See you tomorrow.