Friday, September 28, 2012
One of the first images we see in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” is a close-up profile of Joaquin Phoenix. He is wearing a white helmet. We study his face – something we’ll get plenty of opportunities to do throughout the movie. We then see him on a beach with other Navy sailors. They celebrate. World War II is over.
The first hour of “The Master” is wonderfully dynamic. Anderson elegantly communicates both the exuberance of the American soldiers at the end of the war and the debilitating effects the war has had on them. We are introduced to Freddie Quell’s (Joaquin Phoenix) neurosis when he attempts to have sex with a sand sculpture of a woman.
After the war, Quell finds a job taking photos at a department store. One of Anderson’s most dazzling and beautiful camera movements occurs here when we are introduced to Quell’s current love interest, played by Amy Ferguson. In a single shot, the camera follows Ferguson as she sensuously glides through the store attempting to sell a fur coat. As New Yorker critic Richard Brody noted, the dance aptly captures post-war capitalist lust in addition to conveying Quell’s desire to have sex with every woman he meets.
Perhaps the most striking thing about this film is Joaquin Phoenix’s wiry and contorted body. His cheeks are sunken and his eyes hidden within his cavernous skull. When he speaks, he tilts his head up and we are made all the more aware of his scarred lips. The most memorable images in this movie may be of Phoenix resting his thin arms above his comically high-waisted pants.
After assaulting a customer, Phoenix loses his job. He stows away on a cruise ship and encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a Scientology-esque cult. Hoffman, with his face often sweaty and flush, plays up the vaudevillian skills and charisma a cult leader such as Dodd must posses in order to be successful. At this point, the film moves from open expanses, such as the beach and the department store, to cramped spaces – mostly rooms either on the ship or in a home – that are composed largely of static close-ups.
Though this second half has its strengths (Hoffman and Phoenix’s great performances, Anderson’s non-judgmental treatment of Quell and Dodd, and even more 1950s pants depicted in grand 70mm detail) it fails to live up to the promise of the terrific first hour. The dynamic, visual storytelling of the first half becomes a languishing, close-up and repetition-driven second half. However as Mubi critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky wrote, “there’s at least an hour of a masterpiece in there.”
This article will be published in the October 1st issue of The Commentator.