Fuzzy Math, by Kyle Anderson
There are filmmakers who will get attention whenever they come out with a new movie. Usually this is due to their relatively small or slow output coupled with huge amounts of critical acclaim. This is your Coen Bros., your Tarantinos, your Wes Andersons, etc. Filmmakers who have earned a certain degree of respect and anticipation and even if the next movie isn’t as well liked as people would want, they’ve built up enough goodwill to make people excited whenever they make a movie. This is certainly the case with Paul Thomas Anderson, who prior to this year had made only five features in about 15 years. This year, he’s returned after a five year absence with The Master, a film we’ve all been clamoring to see since we first saw the evocative trailer. Because of who Anderson is, there is a high degree of importance placed on the film, and it’s sure to get a lot of awards buzz. Does it deserve this? Let’s find out.
Taking place in a very loose timeline post-World War II and spending most of it in 1950, The Master tells the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic ne’er-do-well who since leaving the Navy has staggered from job to job and place to place in his constant journey to drink, fuck, and fight. Eventually, after being chased out of yet another job picking cabbage, he stows away on a yacht holding the members of a group called The Cause, led by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Despite Freddie’s being a very base and simple creature, Dodd takes a liking to him and believes he can help free him of his past demons and give him inner peace. Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and his grown children do not think Freddie is a good energy for the group, given his proclivities, but Dodd is determined and creates a friendship with the angry and tortured man. While this is going on, Dodd and his followers are under scrutiny from the mainstream as to the validity of their work, and even some of his most loyal begin to question the Cause’s teachings.
There is a whole lot to like about The Master. The cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr (who shot Tetro and Youth Without Youth for Coppola) is utterly gorgeous. It was shot in 70mm and there is a richness and texture to the film that would be totally lost if it were in 35mm. There are several shots of the ocean which are as remarkable as they’d be if shot for a nature documentary. To get nerdy about aspect ratios for a moment; the film was shot in 1.85:1 and each shot is beautifully framed so as to make the most out of this ratio. It’s one thing to shoot a film a certain way, it’s another entirely to make the best use out of that. The images are so important and tell their own story. There’s also an excellent use of the edge of the frame as a barrier. The characters see things that we don’t as it’s much more important for us to see the character than what he’s looking at.
What I imagine everyone will be talking about from this movie is the acting of Phoenix and Hoffman. These two actors each give the performances of their careers. They have such different styles and are playing such different characters on the surface that when we realize that they’re much more similar than we’d thought, and much more connected than we’d thought, it is all the more impactful. Hoffman as the scholar trying to defend his newly-minted ethos betrays some of the inner fire of the very cool and calculating Dodd. Phoenix is somehow able to contort his face and body in a way heretofore unseen. Opposite to Dodd, Freddie is all id and he always wears his heart on his sleeve, but we do get glimpses of the quieter man who’s been buried, perhaps forever, beneath the bent exterior. The scenes between the two of them are nothing short of electric, in particular a very quiet scene in the boat where Dodd is conditioning Freddie, and a second in jail cells after they’ve both been hauled away by the police. I would be very, very surprised if neither of these men gets an Oscar nomination. I’m glad I’m not in the Academy because I’m not sure who’d get my vote.
What I think the film does quite well is give us both sides of the cult mentality. It’s been addressed everywhere that the Cause and the character of Lancaster Dodd are based on the Church of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Anderson, impressively, doesn’t really take a side. He raises doubt on the part of everybody as to the validity of church’s teachings, not least of which from Dodd himself who is at his most raw when he’s forced to explain and defend himself. There’s also a very lengthy sequence where Dodd attempts to “cure” Freddie through a series of very repetitive conditioning exercises that aren’t fully explained but are used to, apparently, wear out the experimentee to the point of giving in. What is interesting is that, in the moment, some of Dodd’s methods seem to work and people are happier afterwards, but for all too brief a time.
Each individual scene is enthralling and engaging and for 60-70% of the film’s runtime, I was completely in it and marveling at how much I liked what I was seeing. However, as the film began to wind down I began to feel like, while it seemed like we were building to something, we never quite got there. There were pieces of the story that we should have seen that we just didn’t. The scenes I’d been anticipating that would have given us the payoff of character, plot, situation, circumstance simply do not appear, save a very good denouement for one of Freddie’s plot threads. There are huge jumps in time and location that are never really addressed and, especially given the way the film ultimately resolves, are sorely missed. Without these scenes I’m left wondering, for all the excellent acting and cinematography, what overall point was trying to me made?
This is my issue with Paul Thomas Anderson: He does interesting things but I never seem to “get it.” I’m fully aware that I’m in the minority in my opinion on Anderson’s films, but I truly just don’t think I get them. I’m on board for most of it, but then it loses me before the end. I haven’t “drank the Kool-Aid,” as it were. Even There Will Be Blood which I recognize as a brilliant film isn’t AS brilliant as it should have been due to some questionable story issues. I can’t get over feeling like his movies, and The Master now especially, are inside jokes that I wasn’t fully privy to. I’m not pleased by this; I really wanted to love The Master and was indeed loving it for most of the running time, but, like all of P.T.A.’s films, it failed to be greater than the sum of its (exceptional) parts.