Monday, September 24, 2012

The Master review

I believe film is art. Now, not all movies are high art. Obviously, some of it is for entertainment value only. See The Expendables 2. I also believe that high art should be be entertaining. The Master is an example of high art. The question becomes is it entertaining?

The Master takes place at the end of World War II, sailor Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally ill, alcoholic veteran. His sickness causes him to move from job to job. After poisoning a fellow migrant farmer with homemade booze, Quell stows away on a ship chartered by Lancaster Dodd. (Philip Seymour Hoffman)

Dodd is the creator of a movement known as The Cause. Its devotees believe that a person's problems are due to a past life. Dodd "treats" people by a kind of hypnosis in which he connects to one's prior life. It's treated as time travel rather than actual hypnosis. Dodd sees Quell as a challenge. Dodd believes he can cure Quell of his mental illness. He allows Quell to follow him and treats him with various practices associated with The Cause.

Director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson's film is more than a drama about cultism. Tom Cruise won't be happy about The Cause's similarities to Scientology. But The Master explores other ideas related to Scientology. It examines the treatment of neurosis and mental illness. It takes a look at psychology. One can't help but compare Quell to Sigmund Freud's patient Anna O that led to the science of psychoanalysis. And there are ideas about religion. Are followers of The Cause members of a cult, followers of a philosophy or a religion?

While Anderson should be applauded for raising these ideas, the question remains is this work of art entertaining? The problem with The Master is that it needs better editing. There are scenes that are needless or are too long. I wonder if this film was screened to an objective, film expert. Because I'm sure the advice would be that it was too long. The excess saps the dramatic energy of the movie. The Master requires the audience pay more attention than the usual art house fare.

But there is no doubt that Anderson is a master director. Many scenes are framed like paintings. He doesn't rely on camera gymnastics. Something I wish other filmmakers would follow. Hear that J.J. Abrams? He also knows when to rely on his actors to carry a scene. There's no need for a moving camera when filming a face as interesting as Joaquin Phoenix's. His forehead wrinkles, and expressions are fascinating enough.

The Master features some career performances. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a performance of a lifetime as Dodd. He doesn't believe that The Cause is a bunch of malarkey. He actually believes that his philosophies even though made up, help people with their lives. It's a performance that reminds me of Orson Welles at the top of his acting game. Amy Adams as Dodd's obedient wife, Peggy, is solid. She's helped by make-up and costumes. Her physical appearance is reminiscent of the women of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS Church)

Joaquin Phoenix gives another Oscar worthy performance. He should be nominated for his role as Quell. Phoenix transforms his body to demonstrate the demons within. He contorts the body and his face to show his mental illness.

The Master is a slow, thought provoking piece of cinematic art. It's a mesmerizing look at cults, psychology and religion. The grade is B+.

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