THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Freddie Quell is a complete mess. The Naval veteran (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is a deeply troubled alcoholic with anger management issues and some bizarre sexual proclivities. Upon his discharge, Freddie tries to fit in with “normal” 1950's society, but his demons continue to torment him. His life changes when he meets Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), an enigmatic individual who describes himself as, among other things, an author, a doctor, and a philosopher. This is the set-up of The Master, the new film from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. I've loved all of Anderson's previous films - Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood - and he scores yet again this time. The Master is genuine walk-the-high-wire-without-a-net, swing-for-the-fences filmmaking. Bold, challenging, and unique, it's easily destined to go down as one of 2012's best movies.
Lancaster Dodd is the founder of a cult known as The Cause – but don't let him hear you call it a cult. Dodd has developed a bunch of strange techniques that he claims have therapeutic qualities. His devoted followers eagerly line up to have him “cure” their addictions, afflictions, and troublesome predilections. Meanwhile, Dodd's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), ferociously attacks anyone who dares criticize her husband's brilliance. During their first encounter, Dodd tries one of his approaches on Freddie, who seemingly responds to it. Freddie quickly becomes a convert to The Cause, and is put through a regiment of things designed to positively transform him. As time goes on, though, he begins to see that, for all his belief and all his efforts, he's still inherently angry and sexually compulsive. He wonders if The Cause is really all it's cracked up to be. And Dodd doesn't like to be doubted.
The Master is admittedly an odd movie. Whereas most movies are paced in a very linear way, Anderson intentionally leaves out some of the connective tissue here. At times, the plot jumps from one thing to the next, creating a bit of mystery about what happened in between. The effect is that the film has a hypnotic, almost dreamlike quality. The Master oozes atmosphere, plunging you deep into this cult full of people doing bizarre things with complete conviction. It is said that, to join a cult, a person must become a bit brainwashed. The individual in charge or the power of the core ideas take up space in the brain, preventing logical thought or making illogical thought seem logical. Anderson's technique captures what that must feel like, the sensation of totally surrendering oneself to a whirlwind of insanity.
To me, Joaquin Phoenix gives the best performance of his career in this picture. In scene after scene, Phoenix is fierce, like a caged animal trying to break free. Talking out of only one side of his mouth and perpetually contorting his face into a pained grimace, he makes Freddie Quell a ball of raging inner torment. It's as though the man is in so much emotional anguish that he can no longer contain it inside his body; it has to come crashing through. In lesser hands, this performance would seem mannered, but Phoenix quite literally transforms himself into the character. He shares some powerful scenes with the equally mesmerizing Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who makes Dodd just charismatic enough to be borderline dangerous. Several times, Hoffman is called upon to explode, as Dodd is prone to do whenever someone questions his genius. These are scary moments because the actor makes Dodd's anger stem from a place of megalomania. Watching Phoenix and Hoffman go head-to-head is like witnessing a master class in acting. Freddie and Dodd are case studies in, respectively, susceptibility and control. An explosive mix, for sure.
The Master gets its title not only from Lancaster Dodd's nickname in The Cause but also from the story's central theme, which is how one decides which master to serve. Freddie Quell has been serving different masters throughout his life. His time in The Cause forces him to ponder whether those masters have led him down the path that is best for him. I won't spoil what he decides, except to say that where the story takes us has a rather profound impact. The Master is one of those movies that will doubtlessly improve with repeated viewings, as you're able to peel away the layers and find new associations in the material. And believe me when I say that I will be seeing this film again. The beauty of Paul Thomas Anderson's pictures is that they blow you away the first time, then blow you away even more the second and third times. The Master is an example of a filmmaker working at the absolute top of his game and, subsequently, delivering a masterpiece.
( out of four)
The Master arrives on DVD and in a Blu-Ray combo pack on February 26.
The bonus materials begin with “Back Beyond,” a 20-minute assortment of outtakes and deleted scenes scored to the music of Johnny Greenwood. The scenes are presented in a more expressionist way than you normally get on a Blu-Ray, as they are strung together with nothing separating them or providing any context as to where they would have occurred in the story. Still, there are some valuable moments in here, most notably a couple scenes that further explain the box Quell and Dodd dig up in the desert. There is also a rather amusing outtake of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix cracking up during a shot.
Next up is “Unguided Message,” an 8-minute behind the scenes feature. It initially provides little more than shots of crew members at work, but eventually grows a bit more revealing. You get to see Hoffman rehearsing, as well as a practical joke someone played during a scene in an elevator. (Hint: It involves farting.)
A collection of teasers and trailers runs about 16 minutes, and contains not only the original theatrical trailer, but also promotional spots tailored for specific screenings, including one at Chicago's Music Box Theater.
Finally, there is “Let There Be Light,” which is John Huston's hour-long 1946 documentary about WWII veterans. While it doesn't have any immediate connection to The Master, it certainly has thematic similarities and was clearly an influence on how Paul Thomas Anderson developed his story.
Also tucked inside the Blu-Ray is a digital copy of the film and a nifty postcard featuring the likeness of Lancaster Dodd.
The Master was my pick for the Best Film of 2012. If you missed it theatrically, this Blu-Ray is a good way to catch up. If you've already seen it, the bonus goodies should be enough enticement to see it again.
The Master is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language. The running time is 2 hours and 17 minutes.
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