Sean K. Cureton

Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

Hoffman and Phoenix Turn in the Two Best Performances of the Year

In Movie Reviews: 2012 on October 12, 2012 at 5:24 pm

Theatrical Poster


The Master
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
3 ½ out of 4 stars

Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, The Master, is an intensely moving portrait of the nature of being human as seen through the lens of insanity, both in a literal and an abstract sense. Philip Seymour Hoffman is in top form as the enigmatic “cult” leader Lancaster Dodd, a man whose charisma wins him supporters and detractors, polarizing both characters within the film as well as viewers of the film. While The Master could be considered an especially challenging film, it is more importantly one of the most original and immersive films to come out this year.

Anderson’s new film opens with Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Freddie Quell, stationed on a beach towards the end of the Second World War, hacking open a coconut with a large machete. Freddie can be seen as the hero of the film, albeit an unlikeable one. Freddie is a deranged, late stage alcoholic, who thinks only of sex and where he will procure his next drink. The contrast that is thus made between Freddie and Lancaster Dodd is one of bestiality and the domesticated man. Freddie’s simian-like activity at the opening of the film thus turns Freddie into a beast, and this semblance is maintained throughout based on Freddie’s increasingly violent, lustful, and unrestrained behavior and actions towards others and towards himself.

Standing in as the antithesis to Freddie’s animal madness, Hoffman’s portrayal of Lancaster Dodd is civilized, literate, and thoughtful. Dodd’s aims of “processing” people in order to reach a new level of intellectual and individual enlightenment in mankind is enthralling in its rhetoric, but ultimately empty of any actual meaning or verifiable proof. Over the course of the film, Dodd is concerned with two things: publishing his second book and curing Freddie. Unfortunately for Dodd, both of these goals fail by the end of the film, with his book becoming the center of intense criticism, from both within his own circle of followers as well as from the outside world, and with Freddie being deemed incurable in the eyes of Dodd’s most recent young bride, played with menacing relish by Amy Adams. By the end of the film, Dodd’s status as “The Master” has been almost completely stripped from him, both in his failing to cure Freddie as well as in his subservience to the wishes of his young wife, possibly the film’s true “master.”

The easiest way to delve into an analysis of what the film is about and what it is trying to say about its subject would be to make the obvious statement that Lancaster Dodd is meant to stand in for L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. Following this fairly literal reading of the film, Anderson could be largely concerned with the master/servant relationship, and how individuals involved in such a relationship need to be respectively controlling and controlled in order to form order within their own lives and respective worldviews. However, this surface-reading explanation of the film’s plot only reveals so much of what the film might be trying to say to its audience, and it certainly doesn’t begin to touch upon why Anderson’s direction makes this film quiet possibly the best picture of the year. Anderson has shown himself in the past to be one of the most careful filmmakers alive, meaning that while his films may condemn the actions of his characters, Anderson does not condemn the characters themselves.

When I left the theatre to go home and began to dissect what I had just seen, someone mentioned to me that they sympathized with Freddie the most over any of the other characters. Anderson would probably agree with this reading, which is exactly why this film can still be so invigorating and rejuvenating even if its characters are outwardly grotesque and its narrative possibly nihilistic.