The Master (2012) marks Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth film, each one imbued more and more with a kind of artistic obliqueness where viewers might not know exactly what is happening, and why, but trust the director enough — oddly flattered that he, the director, trusts us. It’s a weird almost self-congratulatory relationship of perceived or actual integrity, which is the implicit understanding of art in general in its position as highbrow.
I went to a benefit screening at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, packed full of good taste and anticipation. “Film nerds,” my friend said, while texting a guy she was rhetorically ignoring. Going to the movies is a contemporary religious experience, of gathered devotions to our cultural Gods, their effigies emitted onto the altar of screen, us learning how to act by the stories we are told. The film is utterly gorgeous, though unapologetically fervent in its own vision, which the viewer, at least this one, found somewhat alienating. This is less a critique than simply a confession: I did manage to stay awake.
The manic literalness of Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999), however surreal at times, has been traded in for the metaphorical There Will Be Blood (2007) — inspired by Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, and seen by some to represent the late Bush Administration delusional insanity — and now, The Master, with heavy allusions to not just Scientology (over which Magnolia actor Tom Cruise and P.T. Anderson have suffered personal disputes), but cultish thinking and political fundamentalism in general. Even early unused drafts of the former were used in writing the latter.
As with Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis), Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is an eccentric solipsist whose erratic Oscar-ridden behavior propels much of the film. It’s like the weird uncle everyone loves, at limited installments. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as the implied L. Ron Hubbard is much more reserved, though he too gets red-faced and blows up about three or four times in the film. I prefer my Hoffman fat and depressed, as played perfectly in Happiness; The Savages; Synecdoche, New York; and the lesser known heart-achingly wonderful Love Liza.
Laura Dern’s unexpected appearance felt, ironically, rather Lynchian. She plays Helen, who opens her home to followers of “Master” Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) during an unclear book tour for his second release. It’s a mild performance with a view lines, perhaps an obedient bow to the invoked director, who can be seen as a heavy influence.
Amy Adams plays Mary Sue Dodd, apparent wife of Lancaster (she aggressively gives him an handjob one night at the bathroom sink), although she distinctly calls him “Daddy” — and looks young enough — near the end of the film. As either and indictment of, or concession to, the male gaze (as seen through Freddie) there’s an uncomfortable scene where all the actresses (including women of advanced age) are stark naked, full frontals amuck. By now Freddie is punching walls, attacking strangers, and murmuring things which are undoubtedly words in the script, though I could barely make out what he was saying. Phoenix, a method actor, is said to have stayed in character the entire shoot. One worries about how he left his hotel room.
There’s a joke in Tropic Thunder — however self-modest Ben Stiller’s authority in the film industry is, a brilliant satire — about going “full retard,” how Sean Penn lost the Academy Award for Best Actor because he merely played a retarded man — as opposed to Tom Hanks (in Forrest Gump) and Dustin Hoffman (in Rainman), who played charming autistic savants. The myth of the genius and myth of the retard may be one in the same. It is unclear if Freddy Quell is mentally challenged, or just a drunk, or P.T. Anderson’s sneaky archetype of Man. Perennial Oscar contenders Al Pacino, Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe et al have all played over-the-top characters, or at least normal men driven to over-the-top actions. I see this as the insecurity of subtlety. Bill Murray in Lost in Translation was destined to lose to Sean Penn’s fits of paternal despair and rage in Mystic River. If someone is already screaming in the trailer, you know you’re in for a ride.
Joaquin Phoenix is a formidable actor whose budding reputation has flowered with this film. His face suffers the pathos of Vincent Gallo, without all the drugs. His nervous breakdown-y stunt in I’m Still Here (2010) was so deft it was almost real. Clearly straddling the fence between over-acting and subtlety, he has his subsequent choices in roles to define him. And I’m excited.
In a Q&A interview Lancaster Dodd calls “processing,” when asked about an ex-girlfriend who he abandoned, Joaquin Phoenix’s forehead vein pops out as thick as a finger, his grave eyes burning under welling but never falling tears. It doesn’t matter what the answer is. That face is enough. The entire audience was raptured. After the scene, my friend turned to me and whispered “now that’s acting,” at which I affirmatively nodded. We may have a new God. I took a swig of hidden bourbon, and wondered who would play me.