The Master: Venice Review
Venice 2012: Paul Thomas Anderson Says Tom Cruise Has Seen 'The Master' 'And We're Still Friends'
Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master is masterful for sure, as well as enthralling and perplexing. But an argument that will endure for as long as people feel like seeing and talking about the film is whether it adds up to the sum of its many brilliant parts.
The writer-director's first film in five years is an unsettling character study of a disturbed and violent Navy veteran, a selective portrait of post-World War II America, a showcase for two superb performances and a cinephile's sandbox. One thing it is not is a dissection or exposé of Scientology, even though nearly all the characters are involved in a controversial cult. Even the prerelease phase of the film's life has been unusual, with The Weinstein Company moving up the release date to Sept. 21, some surprise screenings having sprung up around the country prior to its official world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and even the cinemas it will play in having become the subject of much discussion due to the 70mm format in which much of the film was shot. Its commercial career looks to follow the usual course of the director's work, with his intense fan base and mostly, if not unanimously, strong critical support making the film a must-see for serious audiences and wider acceptance dependent upon the extent of awards recognition. Even so, this will be a tougher sell to Joe Public than Anderson's other work.
In a work overflowing with qualities but also brimming with puzzlements, two things stand out: the extraordinary command of cinematic technique, which alone is nearly enough to keep a connoisseur on the edge of his seat the entire time, and the tremendous portrayals by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman of two entirely antithetical men, one an unlettered drifter without a clue, the other an intellectual charlatan who claims to have all the answers. They become greatly important to one another and yet, in the end, have an oddly negligible mutual effect. The majesterial style, eerie mood and forbidding central characters echo Anderson's last film, There Will Be Blood, a kinship furthered by another bold and discordant score by Jonny Greenwood.
The first 20 minutes are spent observing the aberrant, unpredictable behavior of sailor Freddie Quell (Phoenix). Appearing to be sex-obsessed and a bit loony as he cavorts and pleasures himself on a Pacific beach, Freddie is diagnosed with a “nervous condition” upon his discharge at the end of WWII, whereupon he turns up as a photographer at a snazzy department store. He's got enough charm to seduce the beautiful model he's shooting, but is so hair-triggered that he assaults a male customer and is fired. This entire interlude at the store is one of the most beautifully directed scenes anyone could ever wish to see.
But right off the bat, Phoenix is profoundly unnerving, so deeply into this unbalanced character does he seem to be. In addition to using his eyes in ways that can be both furtive and challenging, the actor screws his mouth back to one side, combining with his upper-lip scar to odd effect, and hunches over insecurely to provide a physical presence of surpassing weirdness.
One thing Freddie is known for is a knockout cocktail of uncertain provenance. But when, at his next job in the fields, the drink proves lethal to a fellow migrant worker, Freddie scrams to San Francisco, where fate sees him sneaking aboard an elegant ship upon which a party is under way. Once again, Anderson's visuals are breathtaking, with the beautiful craft lit to appear as an irresistible haven and its passage under the Golden Gate Bridge a hauntingly romantic image of a dream voyage. As the ship makes it way to New York via Panama, the host, the dazzlingly articulate Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), recognizes at once that Freddie is a scoundrel but welcomes the stowaway nonetheless, both for his cocktails (the secret ingredient of which turns out to be paint thinner) and, no doubt, for the challenge of curing him, as setting people straight is the goal of the quasi-mystical personal-improvement enterprise called The Cause that Dodd leads. “You're aberrated,” Dodd declares. “You've strayed from the proper path.”