Sunday, September 23, 2012
The Master (2012 film)
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master is the story of a troubled sailor who meets the leader of a newly-created faith organization as he becomes the leader’s right-hand man. Based on the founding of Scientology and its leader L. Ron Hubbard, the film explores a man finding meaning in his life through religion where he eventually starts to question its teachings. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, David Warshofsky, and Kevin J. O’Connor. The Master is a provocative yet captivating film from Paul Thomas Anderson.
After serving as a seaman in the Navy during World War II, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) struggles to maintain a normal life as he continues to booze around from place to place while causing trouble in whatever place he works at. Unable to find a place in the world and in a drunken stupor, Quell suddenly boards on a boat where a party is happening. When the boat leaves San Francisco on its way to New York City, Quell meets a man named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is the leader of a new faith-based organization known as the Cause. With Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) on board as well as the rest of Dodd’s family and fellow followers, Quell is intrigued by this world as he makes some booze for Dodd. Dodd would also have sessions with Quell to see what makes him tick and what he’s afraid of as he welcomes Quell to the Cause.
Arriving at New York City for a party where Dodd wants to present his ideas to society, a man named John More (Christopher Evan Welch) asks questions that starts to annoy Dodd leading to Quell to respond by throwing food at him. Forced out of New York society, Dodd and his followers go to Philadelphia to stay at the home of Cause member Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern) where Dodd is trying to complete his second book. After Dodd is arrested for supposedly extorting money where Quell tries to fight off the police, Peggy and family members think about kicking Quell out of the group. Dodd decides to let Quell stay in order to help him as Quell deals with Dodd’s teachings to get better. Though Quell manages to be helpful for Dodd and the Cause as it leads to the publication of Dodd’s second book. Quell is still troubled by his own demons as he suddenly flees during a test as he later meet Dodd one last time.
Whenever someone feels out of place in the world and wants to find somewhere that will allow him to be part of something. They’ll do anything to fit right in whether it’s part of a cult or something that is bigger than themselves. For a man like Freddie Quell, here is someone who is completely out of sorts with the world at large. He is obsessed with sex and boozing as he has a hard time holding down a job or be part of society that expects him to conform to the ways of the world. By stumbling onto a ship, he would discover a world that is unique and that will allow him to be part of something. Allowing him into this world is its leader Lancaster Dodd. Here’s a man who has been around the world and has experienced a lot while wants to help people who are troubled by their past and such.
While Dodd’s methods are definitely questionable as some like his own son Val (Jesse Plemons) among many others including Helen Sullivan later on at a convention. There is no doubt that Dodd is just trying to help someone as unhinged as Quell by asking him some simple questions and wonder what is troubling Quell. It would lead to answers about who Quell is as it eventually leads to more unconventional methods that would force Quell to confront many things. While what Dodd’s teaches may help Quell, not everyone feels like Quell is responding to Dodd’s methods as it leads to many questions.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay definitely explores many themes that he had done in the past such as the idea of family and belonging to something. Yet, he also explores alienation in the form of Freddie Quell as he is desperate to belong somewhere. However, there’s people like Peggy Dodd who is uneasy about Quell as she does try to help him with mixed results. The Dodds are this unique family who are trying to express their views on the world and faith as they want to offer something. While Peggy is a much more fervent believer of the Cause as she is sort of like a second-in-command to her husband. Lancaster is not as aggressive but will be if he’s pushed.
With Quell being part of this group of people, he does seem like he is now family where Dodd becomes a father of sorts to him. Still, there would be ways for Quell to undo these things as it plays into the third act of the story. At this convention where Dodd presents his new book to his followers, there’s a party that is happening where everyone is having fun but Dodd isn’t there. A follower (Kevin J. O’Connor) briefly talks about the book where Quell would later assault this man as it’s followed by a scene where Helen is confused by Dodd’s new ideas in the book. It would later show that both Quell and Dodd are both aiming for something that is very similar but are taking very different paths to this destination that would ultimately lead to the two have one final meeting.
Anderson’s direction is grand in its scope as he definitely takes full-advantage of the canvas that he uses for this film. With gorgeous images of the sea and deserts to help create these amazingly hypnotic wide shots, Anderson is definitely yearning to recreate a type of cinema that had been lost for some time in the form of the epic film. Not epic in terms of stories that are larger than life but rather epic in terms of its visual scale. Shooting in locations around California as well as the Mare Island, Anderson still aims to create a film that is larger just as it’s set in postwar America in the late 1940s and early 1950s as it’s about to enter something that would modern.
While many of the exterior locations and shots of the sea have this majestic look that plays to the world of old-school epic cinema, Anderson still maintains an air of intimacy in the story that he presents. With a lot of striking compositions in the way he frames the actors in a shot. Anderson creates something that is more grounded in humanity as he is interested in these two very different men just trying to find answers about how to live life in the universe. Even in the film’s final moments such as Dodd and Quell’s final meeting where he places the camera in a wide shot as both men are at the edge of the frame. It’s to establish how far apart they are in the world they live in as both seem to have an understanding about each other but both are aware of their own failings as men. Overall, Anderson creates a film that is just visually-spellbinding as well as engrossing its exploration of faith and humanity.
Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. does spellbinding work with the film’s cinematography to capture the beauty of the locations in California such as the sea, the desert, and the vegetable groves along with lush interiors for the scenes in the Sullivan home with some low-key lighting schemes to help set the mood for those moments. Editors Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty do brilliant work with the editing to play up Quell‘s manic issues while slowing things down for a methodical pace as he gives in to Dodd‘s teaching with a few amazing montages to help establish these moments. Production designers Jack Fisk and David Crank, along with set decorator Amy Wells, do fantastic work with the set pieces to create the look and feel of postwar America as well as the look of the boat and places the characters encounter.
Costume designer Mark Bridges does superb work with the costumes to play up the look of postwar America from the dresses the women wear along with the suits that Dodd wears to express his very warm personality. Sound designer Christopher Scarabosio and co-sound editor Matthew Wood do excellent work with the sound to capture intimacy of some of the locations along with the raucous nature of the party scenes that happen in the film.
The film’s music by Jonny Greenwood is phenomenal for its unconventional orchestral score that features jazzy bass lines, crackling percussions, soaring string instruments, and themes that are at times calm but also unsettling to play up the dark tone of the film. Music supervisor Linda Cohen does terrific work with the music as she uses lots of pieces of the time including a few standards that are sung by Philip Seymour Hoffman along with songs sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Jo Stafford, and Helen Forrest to set a mood for the scenes in the film.
The casting by Cassandra Kulukundis is incredible for the ensemble that is created for this film. In small but notable roles, there’s a cameo from Melora Walters as singer in the convention, David Warshofsky as Philadelphia policeman, Kevin J. O’Connor as a follower of the Cause, Christopher Evan Welch as a man who tries to scrutinize Dodd, Amy Ferguson as a salesgirl Quell tries to hook up with early in the film, W. Earl Brown as a man that Quell fights at the mall, Madisen Beaty as Quell’s ex-girlfriend Doris, and Lena Endre as Doris’ mother. Other noteworthy small roles include Jesse Plemons as Dodd’s son Val, Rami Malek as Dodd’s son-in-law Clark, Ambyr Childers as Dodd’s daughter Elizabeth, and Laura Dern as Dodd’s colleague and friend Helen Sullivan.
Amy Adams is tremendous as Dodd’s wife Peggy who displays a sweetness in the way she presents herself as a supporting wife as well as a dark edge in making sure her husband succeeds as well as dealing with Quell’s erratic behavior. Philip Seymour Hoffman is marvelous as the very charismatic Lancaster Dodd by displaying a lot of energy and wit to a character that has a lot of questionable methods but is very engaging in the way he presents himself. Finally, there’s Joaquin Phoenix in a chilling yet evocative performance as Freddie Quell by creating a man who is on the brink of collapse as there’s a dark sense of humor to Phoenix’s role as well as something grand to his character in the way he displays himself physically as well as emotionally as it’s definitely Phoenix at his finest.
The Master is an outstanding film from Paul Thomas Anderson that features top-notch performances from Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. While it is a far more complex film than anything Anderson had done, it is still very intriguing for the way he tackles the world of faith and alienation set in a very tense time in American history. Particularly in how the world of religious cults might’ve been formed and the intentions they had once promised before it became more subject of scrutiny. In the end, The Master is a remarkable achievement from Paul Thomas Anderson.
P.T. Anderson Films: Hard Eight/Sydney - Boogie Nights - Magnolia - Punch-Drunk Love - There Will Be Blood - Inherent Vice - Junun - Phantom Thread
Related: The Shorts & Videos of P.T. Anderson - The Auteurs #15: Paul Thomas Anderson
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