Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

08 October 2012

As Regards The Master

I have been delaying a post about The Master for a while.

Often, when I feel like a film is a little smarter than I am, or when a film overwhelms me, I just avoid posting altogether. Sometimes, I feel like a film is just too good, and I don't have anything to say except the (rather boring) oh-my-god-I-loved-it. Films like Biutiful and The Reader and The Wrestler left me without words at the time, though, for the record, I could now probably regale anyone with numerous reasons why I love those films.

But I haven't been avoiding discussion of The Master because it's too good. It is, rather, that The Master left me feeling very conflicted. I didn't love The Master, and this isn't because it is not excellent. It is excellent. But I found The Master also to be deeply flawed.

In many ways, The Master is a kind of continuation of Anderson's previous masterpiece There Will Be Blood. If you remember, Blood was a kind of giant metaphoric battle of wills that pitted (evil) capitalism against (evil) religion. There Will Be Blood is a morality tale dressed up as a personal drama. It uses dual character studies as a cover for an exploration of what Anderson (via Upton Sinclair, who wrote the source material) sees as competing sets of lies that trap human beings and blind them to their own lives and the lives of others. I found it difficult not to see Anderson's big-picture metaphors in There Will Be Blood, but they didn't bother me even a little bit, so taken in was I by the story, the character studies, and the sheer audacity of Anderson's filmmaking.

(Further, There Will Be Blood was an enormous departure for the director, whose previous films had been stories of late-twentieth-century life, saturated with color, filled with urban ennui, but possessing an underlying faith in the good intentions of his characters.)

The Master is also a battle of wills between two characters, each of whom symbolizes a way of life or a system of lies that traps human beings. Joaquin Phoenix (who is just absolutely genius in this movie) is a wayward alcoholic, who can't keep a job down, who has no direction in his life, who is impulsively and dangerously violent, and who mixes his own unique brands of hooch using shall we say unconventional ingredients (in the first few minutes of the film he uses – in different brews – jet fuel, paint thinner, and what looked to me like acetic acid).

His foil is the eponymous Master himself, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (with his usual obstreperousness), an L. Ron Hubbard-type figure who believes in past lives and who performs something called "processing" on people willing to undergo his pseudo-psychoanalytic treatments.

Both characters are very, very interesting, and it is a testament to how convincing both characters are that my companion and I both considered the self-destructive alcoholic to be the one to have gotten in with the dangerous crowd and not the other way around. There are also some absolutely phenomenal sequences. Joaquin Phoenix's first processing session is easily some of the bravest, best acting he's ever done. It's incredible, actually. Anderson's direction of actors is flawless. His eye for detail is extraordinary. The Master is breathtakingly shot (by Francis Ford Coppola's cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.), and Johnny Greenwood's score is haunting, intelligent, and engaging.

But... The Master outstays its welcome. Anderson is not satisfied with the film's first ending, and tacks on two or three more (depending on how you count). And the larger evils for which his (admittedly fascinating) characters stand in – alcoholism and religion – come to seem simple, trite, obviously flawed. Too soon I sensed my own feelings of superiority for these characters – one an aimless, disaffected alcoholic, the other an unapologetic, destructive charlatan. It felt easy to say Well why can't he simply get his life together? and How dare this man behave with such shameless arrogance?

If The Master is complicated, rich filmmaking – and it undoubtedly is – it also settles for answers that seemed to me too easy, and its moral compass is less complex than the intricate, humane storytelling that Anderson is able to achieve.