Monday, February 11, 2013

Oscars 2013: The Master

Phoenix as the troubled Freddie Quell
The Master (U.S., 2012) directed by P.T. Anderson,
Nominated for Three Oscars
Best Actor
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Best Actress in a Supporting Role 

Where to start when reviewing the work of P.T. Anderson as a director and intellectual presence in cinema? His films often confound, sometimes infuriate, in the oblique nature of their presentation. We are definitely in the presence of an artist who doesn’t seem to particularly care if the work is completely understood or not.

I could recite the plot of this film but I don’t think I can properly “explain” what it’s about. Here is a synopsis. Let’s reconvene, shall we, once you’ve read this?

I think many of P.T. Anderson’s films are about the struggle to free oneself from some controlling, often authoritarian, element in one’s life - often represented by a father figure: the charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodds in The Master; the brutal oil baron Daniel Plainview in There will be Blood; Claudia Wilson’s child molesting father the game show host, or, the professional misogynistic Frank Mackey’s conflicted relationship with his own father in Magnolia.

Here in The Master it is represented by Lancaster Dodds (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who some have said greatly resembles the controversial Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (an observation that Anderson somehow manages to elude in conversation about his film). Dodds controls and manipulates the volatile, alcoholic Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a returning WWII seaman who fails at virtually everything he attempts to do from photographing customers in a department store to labour as a migrant worker where he inadvertently poisons a fellow worker with homemade hooch. His temper, his alcoholism, make him appear untameable and unemployable until …  

Quell falls under Dodds’ spell, as do hundreds of others; he becomes a kind of body guard/bully boy for the charismatic leader even going so far as manhandling Dodds’ own son for criticizing his own father. Dodds alternately coddles and torments Freddie – appearing to be charmed by Freddie’s more feral characteristics. Dodds subjects Quell to a series of intrusive and often prurient questions that are supposedly meant to break down the subject’s resistance to “The Cause” and are said to resemble the interrogations that Scientology members are often subjected to. Much of the film is about how Freddie responds to this control of his personality.

Phoenix is remarkable here. His inner torment informing every gesture, every grimace. So often in contemporary films dealing with a historical period does the viewer feel the anachronism of an actor’s face, gestures, body shape, tone. Not so with Phoenix, who looks and acts every bit the hard-bitten, angry, alcoholic loner who has lived through the Depression and WWII.

When Quell finally eludes Dodds he returns perhaps to an even more elemental form of nature – woman – sleeping with a bar maid (virtually the first woman he meets when he leaves Dodds forever after their meeting in England) and seeming to, for at least a short while, attain some sort of inner peace. 

The last shot of the film shows Quell, back in his days as a seaman, lying beside and caressing a dissolving form of a woman made of sand on a beach. Is this what men must return to – why he must escape the control of the patriarch – to seek solace in woman? Perhaps, perhaps.

Quell under Dodds' spell

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