Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Master (2012)

In The Master (2012), P. T. Anderson has made the wrong movie for the right reasons.

The reasons: Scientology's growing hold on America's entertainment elite, Anderson's gift for capturing things as they are and not as they appear to be, and the considerable talents of Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The movie: about an hour's worth of half-baked polemic stretched over two hours and change.

Freddie Quell, ex-Navyman, is having trouble reintegrating into society after WW2. His efforts are not aided by his moonlighting as a bootlegger, brewing potions so fancifully toxic that it is a miracle he only manages to poison one character over the course of the movie. Fleeing said accidental manslaughter, Freddie falls into the retinue of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a cult leader with a taste for Quell's chemical moonshine. Freddie becomes a devotee of Dodd's philosophy, known as The Cause, but proves to have too many personal demons for Dodd and his acolytes to expel. Quell returns to his empty life of womanizing, and The Cause -- which is beginning to attract the attention of skeptics as well as spiritual seekers -- relocates to England.

Anderson has created a fantastic cast of characters. His women are especially nuanced and complex by Hollywood's standards, including Laura Dern as a Cause-devoted housewife, Amy Adams as Dodd's constantly gestating spouse Peggy, Amber Childers as their ambitiously amorous daughter and Madisen Beaty as Quell's all-but-child-bride. Likewise, Anderson creates a series of haunting and poignant moments that linger with the viewer: Quell's lustful attack on a woman carved from sand, the grotesquely business-minded ideological and sexual demands Peggy places simultaneously upon her husband, Quell ripping a toilet from the wall of a small-town jail (there's a similar moment in Walk the Line: does Phoenix have a contractual clause entitling him to irreparably destroy one bathroom fixture per picture?). Yet it all goes nowhere. Anderson has laid the foundation for a masterwork and then sent it off to theatres naked. It's one thing to sit through ninety minutes of this stuff, but at over two hours, the unformed musings of even a cinematic genius grow wearisome.

Not a screenshot, but damn she's gorgeous.

Scene Stealer: Amy Ferguson is excellent as Martha, a co-worker/lover of Freddie's and a character so minor I can't even find a proper picture of her using Google image search. Martha is a department store model who parades through the aisles in the latest fashions, announcing the price to disinterested shoppers, and her malaise is evident underneath her runway poise. Hopefully next time we see Ferguson, it'll be in a role big enough to actually merit a couple early screenshots.

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