18 November 2012

"Don't Apologize; You're a Scoundrel"

Sometimes when I go to see a movie, I don't mind if I come out not liking it because it's something I felt I should see. This is definitely the case with The Master, because although there were things I liked about it, overall, I didn't find it terribly enjoyable, a fact that was exacerbated by its near 2h30 length. And for what it's worth, I saw the film in 70 mm, comme il faut, but I'm not sure this added to my experience in anyway.

The Master, shown in 70 mm in the Odeon West End

My main issue is the plot or lack thereof. If I am going to sit in a cinema for well over two hours, I at least want an engaging plot to keep me gripped. I started surreptitiously checking my phone at the one-hour mark and continued to do so every 15 minutes or so until the end. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) returns from World War Two traumatized by his experiences. He's addicted to alcohol--to the extent that he mainlines the fluids he uses in his short-lived photography job--and to sex, and he spends several years drifting aimlessly, moving from job to job, and plagued by the occasional violent bout. Then he meets the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who leads a Scientologist-like group of individuals. Helped by his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and son and daughter from his previous marriage (Jesse Plemons is an inspired casting as the son), Dodd believes he can "save" people by helping them communicate with themselves in their past and future lives. He soon latches onto Quell, whom he treats as his special project or protégé. Peggy is concerned by Quell's alcoholism and keeps coming up with ultimatums, but Dodd and Quell have a strange sort of bond that neither can quite renounce.

But then it continues in this vein for another two hours or so, without anything much of any consequence happening. I know this isn't the point of the film and I don't think it makes it a bad film; it's just not the kind of film that I enjoy. Here's what I did like. The performances were excellent: Seymour Hoffman, Phoenix and Adams were all superb in different ways, playing interesting but ultimately unlikable characters. Phoenix manages to make Quell seem physically uncomfortable in his own body for the entire film--a performance that isn't easy to watch--and Seymour Hoffman's Dodd has the perfect balance of charm and self-righteousness. The film is meticulously directed, and while it isn't necessarily visually stunning in the same way as There Will Be Blood, I appreciated Paul Thomas Anderson's directorial decisions, if not the editing decisions. Jonny Greenwood's score is uncomfortable, jarring, haunting and fits perfectly with the movie.

I just felt Anderson could have made many other more interesting points than, "here is an epic character study of some very strange people." What happened to those WWII veterans who returned to the US and struggled to readapt; the way American life was at that time that made it possible for Scientology and similar movements to rise; and so on. Instead, The Master meandered, mused and meditated, and achieved something remarkable and technically strong, but not, for this audience-member at least, very entertaining.

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