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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

THE MASTER -- Blu-Ray/DVD review by porfle

It wasn't until I looked up the lyrics to the song "Slow Boat to China" that I really started to get what Paul Thomas Anderson's THE MASTER (2012) is about.  When I understood that, the ending suddenly took on the emotional significance that I'd missed first time around. 

But that happens now and then with a movie as enigmatic as this one.  You think that little of any real depth is happening for over two hours until you can stop and look back at it all.  Anderson isn't methodically connecting the dots to reveal a big plot here.  He's interested mainly in telling us about some intriguing people and what they mean to each other.

Joaquin Phoenix plays troubled WWII veteran and drifter Freddie Quell, a man whose crudely manic obsession with sex is intertwined with a need for closeness and acceptance.  Struggling to find his way after leaving the Navy, he ends up with a burgeoning cult called The Cause, which is led by the eccentric, charismatic genius Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, JACK GOES BOATING). 

Despite the disapproval of Dodd's domineering wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and other members of the group, Dodd finds the impulsive, unpredictable, and sometimes violent Freddie both a challenge and an inspiration, eventually making him a valued confidant and symbol of the movement's beneficial effect.  "If we cannot help him," he tells a dubious Peggy, "then it is we who have failed."

This is first demonstrated when Dodd, as payment for some wonderful homemade hooch that Freddie is known for, gives him an informal "processing" session meant to help him relive a past event and alter it for the better.  Dodd is later accused of being a simple hypnotist but we're never really sure whether or not he's a complete charlatan, especially since his wife seems so fiercely devoted to The Cause.  But he clearly thinks he can help Freddie for real, or at least turn him into everything he himself wants to be if he only had the freedom ("You will be my guinea pig and protege", he tells him) which seems to invigorate him with a genuine sense of purpose.

Dodd's strange methods both anger and fascinate Freddie until he begins to actively seek his spiritual counselling.  We find out enough about Freddie during these sessions to make him even more of a sympathetic character, while in the two men we see the beginnings of a deep platonic love that will come to dominate both their lives.  Most of the rest of THE MASTER is an exploration of this strange symbiotic relationship that brings out the best and worst in both men while disrupting those around them.

In a brilliant, endlessly inventive performance by Joaquim Phoenix, Freddie Quell is wiry, twitchy, and heartrendingly needy despite an air of self-assurance.  His confusion and uncertainty are underscored by Paul Thomas Anderson's disorienting and often dreamlike images which, augmented by some stream-of-consciousness editing and a dizzying musical score, keep the viewer off-balance much of the time.  Still, Anderson's direction is utterly surehanded and glows with a keen visual sense.

Hoffman's role is less showy but, as Lancaster Dodd, he radiates an off-kilter genius similar to that of Orson Welles while letting a childlike glee show through during certain unguarded moments with Freddie.  Amy Adams, who was so wonderfully appealing in SUNSHINE CLEANING, is no less impressive here as what may be the true power behind The Cause.  The rest of the cast are fine, including Laura Dern as a fervent follower and BAD SEED Patty McCormack as a wealthy dowager who first sponsors and then takes legal action against Dodd.

The Blu-Ray/DVD combo from Image Entertainment is in 1.85:1 letterbox with Dolby 5.1 sound and subtitles in English and Spanish.  Extras consist of 20 minutes of outtakes and additional scenes  (very nicely edited together and scored), an 8-minute short "Unguided Message", teasers and trailers, and (Blu-Ray only) John Huston's 1946 documentary about WWII veterans, "Let There Be Light."  The keepcase contains a postcard of Philip Seymour Hoffman to send to some unsuspecting person on your mailing list.

Paul Thomas Anderson seems to be inviting viewers to watch his enigmatic character study more than once and figure things out for themselves.  It's not a movie that lays everything out neatly for us to fully assimilate first time around.  If you want, you can explore it, mine it for nuggets, and interpret it freely.  THE MASTER ends with a whispered, acapella rendition of "Slow Boat to China", in a lovely platonic love scene that's about as disarming as anything I've seen in quite awhile.

Buy it at
Blu-Ray/DVD Combo


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