Monday, 5 November 2012

Review: Paul Thomas Anderson's 'The Master'

"You do this for a billion years - or not at all"

Release Date: 16th November (or out now on 70mm film at the Odeon West End)
Paul Thomas Anderson
Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour-Hoffman, Amy Adams

If you've been drumming your fingers since 2007 and yearning for the release Paul Thomas Anderson's most recent masterpiece, rest assured you will be rewarded for your patience. From the very first second - choppy Pacific waters and a prolonged shot of shifting, stormy eyes, urged forwards with the booming orchestra of Johnny Greenwood's perfect score - it's obvious that the past five years of Anderson's life have not been spent idly.

The story is one of power, manipulation, trauma, vulnerability, love and loneliness... but the story was somewhat insignificant. It feels that Anderson isn't trying to tell a story, nor give us a narrative - his plot just serves as a canvas for the characters he is painting. And, much like Plainview and Eli in TWBB, what we care about is this warped father/son-esque power struggle that his characters engage in. Joaquin Phoenix has gifted us with his most accomplished performance yet as Freddie Quale, an apt name for a Naval Veteran and a drunk who squirms with inner turmoil. Freddie seems so filled with pain that his entire body is curling in on itself. He is a man at sea in every sense - and he's lost control of his ship in stormy waters. His limbs spasm, violence takes him over and he unsteadily lurches across life. Anderson's characteristically brooding close ups (a la Daniel Plainview) show us a man broken by war and desperate for somewhere to rest. Enter Seymour-Hoffman, that is Lancaster Dodd - a charismatic, enchanting ship commander who looks past Freddie's erratic, anti-social behaviour and takes him under his wing after he stows away on the good ship Alethia.

And so begins a  captivating play-off between the leading men, Seymour-Hoffman and Phoenix, set against Anderson's suggestive and stunning backdrop of barren desert and rolling beaches - brought to vivid, saturated life on the 70mm film. Like the hopelessly vulnerable Freddie, we are at first sucked in by the charm of Dodd, but steadily the cracks begin to show and Dodd's amiable patriarch gives way to a megalomanic Ahab, Captain of religious-movement-cum-cult 'The Cause', and incapable of being questioned without bursts of quickly dampened rage. Anderson brings to mind Scientology in a vague sort of a way, but like the story this is insignificant in comparison to the charged close-ups of faces and souls, and we feel reluctant to see this as a comment on its contemporary counterpart. Despite our slow disenchantment, Freddie remains in the Masters thrall, and we witness his struggle with this surrogate father, with alcohol and with himself. He is drawn to Dodd, comforted by him and in adulation of him, he provides a long sought for island of calm for a man in turmoil. For Dodd, Freddie is his disciple, his son and his greatest challenge, and like a dog follows him faithfully and attacks his adversaries. Like volatile lovers they hurl abuse at one another, then return for an embrace - excommunicate one another only to call, grovelling, and ask to come back.

Although the film is so forcefully about masculine power, the feminine force driving these men - something totally absent in TWBB - is soft and steely. The wholesome, heavily pregnant Amy Adams is a driving force behind The Cause, and where Dodd embraces Freddie, she coldly turns him away. Her perseverance in her following of her husband's gospel, 'you do this for a billion years - or not at all' implies a dogged devotion, but we aren't convinced. Always still, quiet and on the periphery of the action, Peggy Dodd is a silent power and suggests the true momentum behind Langston's booming confidence - a silent wind in the sails of his Pequod. She not so much defines the Master, but underlines him. Similarly, in the opening scenes of the film, the bestial Freddie is reduced to a 'crying episode' by a letter from a girl he used to know. We get a sense that the very cores of these men are, however indirectly, engineered by their women.

I feel that the only way you can fully appreciate The Master is by feeling it - the desperate sadness of a broken man and the fearsome power of oration. Paul Thomas Anderson has created characters as powerful, solitary and moving as Daniel Plainview twice over, and it's fair to say that he is the real master here.

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