Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Master

Greetings and salutations. Once again, the interval between this post and my last is lengthier than I'd care for it to be. Nevertheless, here I am. There is a valid reason for my absence, and it involves my future standing as a professional critic in the real world, beyond this Anytown, U.S.A. I call home. At the moment, I am in the application process of entering the Precollege program at New York University this summer. Thrilling as I know it to be, it has been quite a consumer of my precious time. So far, I've written a rough draft of my personal statement and shared it with a respected professor of mine; the topic of such a document is "life-defining moment(s)", and I have settled on the first time I watched The Godfather as well as witnessing my brother have a seizure. Two vastly different events, but each had an impact on what I know to be my identity. Nothing has been submitted yet, but I shall make updates on my situation. Enough of that for now. Onto an awards season update. Much more interesting.

As you can interpret from the title, what I am about to analyze concerns one of the very first "darlings" targeted by the manic awards-buzz. The Master. For those unaware of its subject matter, allow me to enlighten you. Just as Lancaster Dodd enlightens his susceptible minions. The film surrounds Freddie Quell, a World War II soldier from the Navy who is forced into an aimless existence after the trauma of what he has seen. (Apparently, galloping about a beach and forming sand-girlfriends affected Freddie in a horrific way.) Unsure of himself and what his purpose could be in life, Freddie roams from one odd job to the next, exploding in fits of nonsensical PTSD tantrums along the way. He finally finds himself immersed in a shroud of curiosity when he stumbles drunkenly or dazedly upon a convivial party ship, where, at the heart of it all, lies Freddie's destiny.... As intriguing as this is meant to sound, let me warn you, it is not. At all. On the ship, Freddie meets the charismatic, genial, jolly red-faced Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man at the helm of Freddie's undoing, or creation depending on your disposition. (Perspective?) Ever so slowly (more literally than chronologically in the film), Lancaster Dodd lures Freddie under his wing, into a hypnotic movement known as "The Cause". The Master follows the degeneration of Freddie's character, from curious bystander to completely brainwashed aggressor, and, while it appears to be a film about a cult--as intriguing a subject as it is, of course--there is absolutely nothing so awe-inspiring about it. I figure I may as well just put that out there now, rather than lead you on with the entire synopsis. Much more simple, yes?

As a whole, The Master is merely adequate, if at all entertaining, and proves to be yet another pretentious contender for the title of Best Picture. (It is actually nominated for three Academy Awards, for the three main actors.) Regardless, many critical portals have deemed this film to be the greatest of the year and even "robbed" of a mention as Best Picture. This is highly inaccurate an accusation, for the film is a complete pseudo-intellectual, avant-garde production that displays an excessive amount of unnecessary scenes. Such scenes, where Joaquin Phoenix trudges from one side of the room to the other or when he imagines every female nude, are directed to be "artistic pauses" or something of the sort, where the director can revel in his mastery as filmmaker as audiences crinkle their foreheads in perplexity. "My, what a peculiar display. It must mean something incredibly in-depth and inspired, since there seems to be no connection to the rest of the film." When something in a movie seems out of place and overly strange, it probably is just that: No additional analysis required, the scene you just witnessed is just weird and pointless. Matching the film overall, I reckon. Seriously, if there were a rational editor attached to this movie, the length and progression of the film would be drastically helped, relieving those sane, unpretentious audiences out there. I know you're out there because, otherwise, the box-office would exceed the budget of this pompously and erratically formed picture.

As difficult as it would be to believe, based on my account thus far, there are scenes worthy to watch. If I had to estimate, there is a well-made hour at most within The Master, and, as I said, if the editing had been better, the film would be borderline enjoyable. Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance was, indeed, wonderful, as he tends to be. He embodied the spitting image of an influential, evangelical religious leader: manipulative in the most cunning of ways in that he implants ideas in your mind as if you thought of them on your own. Inception. Philip Seymour Hoffman carried his character with the sanguinity of one in meditation, yet when an attack is introduced against the sacred Cause, he bursts in a fit of defensive rage and suddenly assumes a fiery hue. While such a tendency to defensive tactics diminishes his credibility, for those most assured never have reason to defend their beliefs, Lancaster Dodd simply combs his brow and primps himself to return to his charismatic state. Like most religious-type figures, his character made me immensely uncomfortable in the sense that I felt wary and fearful of his mental power; however, unlike a religious leader, I was drawn to him. Not to say that I "fell" for his ludicrous doctrine or brought "the Cause" to this century, but Lancaster Dodd certainly was capable of hypnotizing his followers. In retrospect, Lancaster Dodd was an intellectual charlatan, vapid in his teachings and with no solid proof of his followers' salvation. (Every religion has some sort of element of salvation, right?) He had nothing to, really, assure his congregation that what he preached was worth the dedication and, most likely, monetary contributions. Somehow, though, he grasped the attention of several followers and fertilized them into Cause-reciting puppets who were their own master, with Lancaster Dodd merely interfering as a clarifier of the Cause. So much nonsense, I agree. Regardless of the content and tone surrounding it, Philip Seymour Hoffman gave a spell-binding, entrancing performance, worthy of the recognition he is receiving, in those private esteemed circles. As for actually winning on Oscar night? Only time shall tell. (And a Supporting Actor analysis, of course.)

Every philosophical luminary requires support, preferably in the form of a wife compatible and passionate to his beliefs, and that woman is portrayed by Amy Adams strikingly. From a first glance, she appears to be a meek, docile housewife, merely a presentable companion who will provide her powerful husband with the heirs to his spiritual legend-in-the-making. However, she reveals she is just as manipulative as her husband, insisting to concentrate solely on the objective of expanding their movement, their cause. The scene where she chastises him for arguing with a skeptic (a common encounter for such cults), which belittles the purpose and stance of their Cause, was undoubtedly one of an audacious, well-spoken person of equal influence, even comparable to Lancaster Dodd. Beyond that, Amy Adams herself amounted to the excellence achieved by Philip Seymour Hoffman, performance-wise. She truly deserves her fourth nomination this year, and it would be a delight to see her accepting the award, considering she may be the greatest candidate this year. Unlike Anne Hathaway, whose performance in Les Miserables has received notable praise and assured victory, Amy Adams had the difficult task of acting and actually delivering something to her performance. Needless to say, all Anne Hathaway did for her role was sing and hold her breath while weeping disturbingly through her appearance in the long musical. Amy Adams, on the other hand, was approached with the task of portraying a character--one who could accomplish timidity as well as zealous aggression--and demonstrated her fine acting ability by becoming her. While her performance, through a broader scope, was nothing entirely transcending, it was surely the best of what the Academy has laid out for voters this year. In my mind, the competition is between her and Sally Field. But then again, it's my mind alone.

The final piece of the puzzle, and actually the primary piece, is Joaquin Phoenix as the troubled, alcoholic, perverted war veteran who joins the Cause with gusto. This is a contradictory statement, the latter part anyway, because, throughout the film, his character displays reluctance to adhering to the movement's eccentricities and even abandons them completely when he appears bored or intransigent. Freddie Quell is a man just as strange as the cult he has become subject to, which makes his membership very much fitting and reasonable which are two words that are far from what this film can be described as. The film surrounds mainly him from beginning to end, a glaring factor that may explain why I had a generally negative reaction towards it. In many of the scenes, as I've said, there are surreal moments where nothing seems to make sense, let alone have any substance to the movie, which make them unnecessary; Joaquin Phoenix is the centerpiece for several of these scenes, if not all, making him the symbol of the absurdity of the film. Aside from these Kafka-esque moments, Freddie Quell's progress in the film represents the degeneration of one being submerged into a cult. Perhaps this process is simpler for Freddie specifically because he was already rather manic and disturbed, making it an effortless endeavor for Lancaster Dodd to lure him into the Cause and become, frankly, his lackey. Soon, Freddie's violent nature and alcoholism combine to punish non-believers and anyone who poses a threat to the Cause, which is another effect of Lancaster Dodd's "inception". But I'm just spoiling the film for you, aren't I? Would you still want to even watch it after my less-than flattering depiction? As strange a character Freddie Quell appears to be, Joaquin Phoenix seems the most rational choice, since he has been known for his weird behavior, such as when he retired from acting and became a rap artist? Now, apparently, he's back to movies, and Freddie Quell was to be his comeback; quite a return, considering he is nominated for an Oscar this year for the performance. As for the quality of that performance, and its worth for a nod: frighteningly appalling and unworthy. With a striking weight-loss that gives him the emaciated appearance of an ill person and an unsightly scar or mutation above his lip, he is just the person you don't want to see return to the screen. Being unattractive is not nearly enough to shun you from cinema, of course, but inadequate acting should be. Throughout the film, I became convinced that he was trying to portray a mentally-disabled person, from his slurred speech and his hunched-over movements, but why he was doing that was a mystery to me. I've been reading reviews of the film, and all say that his performance was "frighteningly believable" and just short of perfection. While I agree, he does portray a believable lunatic obsessed with mind-numbing catalysts, how does that make the performance exceptional? Is my repulsion against his performance really proof of his achievement in the film, that he was so extraordinary as a freak that he deserves praise rather than criticism? That may be, in the future when I drunkenly decide to rewatch this surreal romp, but for the time being, I'll go ahead and call his performance laudable and repugnant.

While there was no solid reference to Scientology or L. Ron Hubbard (the founder of the quasi-religion), surely one judicious viewer can make the connection and align the lunacy presented here to an actual phenomenon. Just saying, though I don't really have to make a debate out of it, considering that animosity towards Scientology is prevalent throughout the country. Even though it is not technically about L. Ron Hubbard, it is about a fanatical cult and the overwhelming influence it can have over those lost souls. The Master is a film about the disconcerting truth that a cult has the startling ability to consume susceptible individuals, such as those without a clue in the world, and that they are the ones who transmogrify into dangerous creatures. Basically stated, anyway. Although I expected a film more about that flattering description and less about weird, uncertain moments (those is this real or imaginary? scenes, like daydreams), I'd have to say that this was not the worst candidate in the Oscar race this year. It definitely fits the Academy's expectations, if not my own, for being pretentious and pseudo-intellectual. But I already called The Master those things, haven't I? Well, overall, I'd say this film can be stored in the back of my memory, where I never care to venture to unless foreign influences inspire me to. Only Lancaster Dodd himself can stir me into watching The Master again.

1 comment:

  1. This was a really good review. I have nominated you for a Film Q&A Tag, would love to read your answers if you're up for it!