Monday, October 22, 2012

THE MASTER (2012)

Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson is always ambitious, usually idiosyncratic, visually dynamic, occasionally obtuse, and endlessly fascinating.  His strongest films are BOOGIE NIGHTS, about the denizens of the ‘70s and ‘80s San Fernando Valley porn industry, and THERE WILL BE BLOOD, about a ruthless California oil baron during the late 19th and early 20th century.  Anderson excels at immersing viewers in the period while populating the screen with vibrant, tangible characters.  He also puzzles and perplexes (see the rain of frogs at the end of MAGNOLIA).  Here Anderson follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II vet suffering from alcoholism and post-traumatic stress syndrome.  After several attempts to fit into post-war society, Freddie stows away aboard a yacht chartered by charismatic guru Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Drawn to the troubled young man, Dodd takes Freddie under his wing and initiates him into The Cause, a system of exercises that uncover past trauma by seeking out remembered lives.  Likewise Freddie clings to his new mentor and his program like a life raft.  Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) mistrusts the new follower yet nevertheless assists her husband in the indoctrination.  But soon Dodd’s rote response to polite challenges turns hostile, fracturing the calm fa├žade of the organization.  The acting is exceptional.  Hoffman gives Dodd the outward veneer of fatherly charm, with startling fissures of petty childishness when questioned too closely.  Adams channels Lady Macbeth as Dodd’s most faithful believer.  Phoenix’s performance is fearless; however, he too often resembles an actor exploring a role rather than embodying it.  Writer/director Anderson loosely based Dodd on the late L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, and his interests lie in exploring how rational and, in Freddie’s case, irrational people are swayed, and often let down, by charismatic, messianic figures.  Anderson refuses to provide pat answers or resolution, making this film less satisfying than his best, but the journey is still bracing and a must see for Anderson fans.

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