The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson

The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson

The Master tells the story of Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran struggling to adjust to a post-war society who meets Lancaster Dodd (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a leader of a religious movement known as “The Cause,” who sees something in Quell and accepts him into the movement. Freddie takes a liking to “The Cause” and begins traveling with Dodd along the East Coast to spread the teachings.

The fact that the film is a fictitious revision of the life stories of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (here they call it “The Cause” to avoid a lawsuit) and John Steinbeck, and the lack of a strong plot makes The Master an odd dodgy animal of a film. I cannot quite grasp what the film’s themes were or its central message – this was probably Paul Thomas Anderson’s intention. Why PTA intended such a cinematic experience is not entirely clear within the film. It’s surprisingly not interested in the inner workings of Scientology or cult organization. It’s about men wanting to find and heal their souls after a post-war period. One man has no idea how to do it and the other claims to have all the answers. Psychology has not yet established itself with people as recognized science yet and therein arises the cult of The Cause. And somewhere in there is a rite of passage, coming-of-age story. It is fleeting; I cannot exactly pinpoint it.

Having said all that, Paul Thomas Anderson does capture something very engaging- the central relationship between Freddy Quell and Lancaster Dodd is fascinating. Joaquin Phoenix convincingly embodies pain of a man who’s been through war. He contorts his body as if he were literally “beaten out of shape”. I read that after a few drafts of the screenplay, PTA decided that it should be Freddy’s story and I do think this is probably the better decision. He is the more sympathetic character simply because he’s trying to work through his past pain and fit in society. That alone almost justifies his frequent bursts of violence.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is great and the director presents the character Lancaster Dodd as if he were a salesman. The character would have lost its charm if the film shown him behind the scenes coming up with his questionable methods of healing. I’m glad they didn’t. There’s a interrogation-like healing session between Dodd and Quell where we see his ideas being physicalized that I really enjoyed. Also, I particularly liked scenes where Lancaster Dodd’s theories are questioned and he is forced to justify his theories publicly. It is very truthful how Hoffman presented how people like this never argue properly when their ideas are challenged. They tend to shrimp out of the argument or snap into an aggressive state. And yes, on that note…

There is a violence lurking beneath both men that makes them volatile characters. It becomes the key thing that connects their souls together and in a way you can call this a hetero-love story between two men. It also becomes the key thing that makes them engaging to the audience. I was unnerved about where they were going to end up. If it were not for this strong central relationship, I probably would have tuned out of the film. Both Hoffman and Phoenix’s performances were deservedly Oscar-nominated.

Jonny Greenwood’s unsettling musical score is noteworthy. It is never directly punctuates what is happening in the moment and it does not musically sync to specific cuts or montage. I started asking myself, why was the music unsettling me? How was it serving the film? For me (and I don’t mean this in a reductive way), the music was implying something outside what was happening onscreen and it suggested the idea of “What if Lancaster Dodd’s methods are effective?” “What if he is indeed helping people?” “What are the consequences if Dodd is just making it all up?” It had me thinking about the growing amount of people that were joining The Cause and how joining a cult may have seemed like an intelligent solution to post-traumatic stress at that time. Someone should give Greenwood an award for this.

The Master may frustrate some audiences because it leaves empty space where one would expect something concrete. It’s all very well done and even with empty space, I think most people will get something out of it. It’s masterful how PTA still managed to make it an engaging experience relying on so little. Exiting a film puzzling over it’s themes can be mentally fun, but that experience does not measure up to going through a fully satisfying catharsis. And that’s why, for my money, There Will Be Blood remains the superior Paul Thomas Anderson film.

Hitchcock by Sacha Gervasi and The Girl by Julian Jarrold

Foreword: a solution to reviewing two similarly-themed films

On my “Common film review clichés to be avoided” page, I have previously stated that I will critique every film as a standalone piece of work. Recently, a special case has surfaced that now has me reconsidering a possible exception to my previously established rule.

Two films about Alfred Hitchcock released this year: Hitchcock and The Girl.

There is an element of timing for when a movie is released that affects one’s experience of how someone views the subject matter afterwards. Theoretically from a film critic’s mentality, two films sharing the same subject matter should not matter and on principle every piece of work should be critiqued as a standalone piece. However, I am too aware that The Girl will be overlooked because Hitchcock has bigger stars in it, a stronger promotional campaign and a theatrical release.

Funny enough, Toby Jones, who plays Alfred Hitchcock in The Girl, has gone through a similar “double case” with playing Truman Capote. I am no expert on Truman Capote, but from what I have read, Toby Jones’ performance seems like a more accurate depiction. Jones’ version showed more colors of emotions; particularly presenting the playful socialite side of Capote in Infamous, an aspect that seemed muted in Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s take in Bennett Miller’s Capote. Toby Jones’ performance was overlooked after Phillip Seymour Hoffman won the Oscar, it is as if as a social group we have exhausted the amount we can possibly care for a subject in its first interpretation and cannot give the same amount of care or attention to the second.

So as a film critique experiment and also to satisfy my lifelong yen to serve justice for the underdog, I have decided to watch Hitchcock and The Girl back-to-back. I chose Hitchcock first because it chronologically takes place before the events of The Girl. Let’s see what happens.

On with the review of Hitchcock

Hitchcock by Sacha Gervasi

Hitchcock centers on the relationship between director Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville during the making of Psycho, a controversial horror film that became one of the most acclaimed and influential works in the filmmaker’s career.

Anthony Hopkins’ performance is more pantomime than a result of inhabiting a role. There’s a lot of emphasis on Hitchcock’s physicality and his droopy face and it comes off as a very good impression played for comedic effect. It’s possible that it is not Hopkin’s fault as director Sacha Gervasi and writer John J. McLaughlin do not have a particular perspective on how we should view Alfred Hitchcock as a person. The film’s not interested in delving too deeply into who he was but aims for laughs with its comedic self-referential tone and many witty remarks from Hitchcock himself.

Helen Mirren as Alma Reville is a good straight man to Hopkins. The interplay between Hopkins and Helen Mirren is the heart of the film. I wish there was more things for these actors to do, to explore their parts with more insight. It forces me to think that they only casted Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh to sell tickets based on the tease of how they filmed her famous shower scene.

The first third of the film starts off decently plot wise, the central question being “How is Hitchcock going to get Psycho made?” However, once the production of Psycho goes underway, there is no more tension in that storyline. It’s as if there was a checklist of events and the film goes on autopilot and checks them off as we move along for the rest of that storyline. I am sure there was more drama to the production and if there wasn’t, the film should take narrative liberties to dramatize it. For example, we all know the security cars missing the airplane taking off by an inch in Argo did not really happen in real life, but it’s more dramatic depicting it that way than just having the crew sigh relief after passing the three security checks as the film’s climax. No, the film shifts focus onto the relationship between Hitchcock and his wife Alma.

The use of humor gets in the way as well. There is a device where Alfred Hitchcock has imaginary conversations with Ed Gein (played by Michael Wincott), the real-life serial killer that inspired Psycho. It’s a great idea for a device as the manifestation of Ed Gein represents Hitchcock’s drive to complete his controversial vision. In essence, Hitchcock is having a supportive conversation with himself. However, the film chooses to score these conversations with a thriller type score that suggests that the imaginary non-existent Gein is going to stab Hitchcock at any second as if we were suddenly watching a Hitchcock film. This tonally defuses the original goal of the device, all in the place for a self-referential laugh.

Did I learn anything insightful about Alfred Hitchcock? Not too much other than I would really like a supportive wife like Alma. It works as a light dramatic comedy about an aging odd couple.

The checklist nature in which Hitchcock glosses over the events of the making of Psycho ultimately makes for more of a televisual experience as opposed to a cinematic one.

Now on with the review for The Girl

The Girl by Julian Jarrold

The Girl depicts the turbulent relationship between filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and actress Tippi Hedren. Hitchcock becomes infatuated with his leading actress, and ends up subjecting her to a series of traumatic and gruelling experiences over the making of The Birds and Marnie after she rebuffs his advances.

The Girl is as far away tonally as one could go after watching the light and funny Hitchcock. Aesthetically it’s a much more cinematic experience, it’s a much darker film and it has a very firm perspective of how it depicts its characters. In fact, the most interesting thing about The Girl is it pretty much decides that Alfred Hitchcock was a sexual predator, and fully depicts him that way one hundred percent. This is where The Girl may distance audiences.

Sienna Miller gives a great performance as Tippi Hedren. Even as a victim, Tippi Hedren is not a weak helpless inactive character. Miller manages to find a lot of things to play dramatically which makes this dark subject matter very watchable. I was scared for her in her scenes with Jones and even have a feeling of how beauty can be a problem for a woman if you are constantly gazed at all day by your boss. Something I probably would not think of if not for the film. As naive as it sounds, I would love to hear what women have to say about this film.

Toby Jones delivers. This is a more natural, deeper performance but the ultimate result doesn’t feel like the humorous facetious Hitchcock we know from his onscreen persona. It’s as if Jones had to inhabit the role of Alfred Hitchcock deeper to shift his image to suit the film’s thesis. For example, Jones nails Hitchcock’s voice to a tee, but at times he would shift Hitchcock’s voice to a more sinister place, and at times it was like he was part Alfred Hitchcock, part Cockney gangster. He plays him like an old pervert and through his stare we can see the fantasies that Hitchcock is superimposing onto this woman and experience the emotionally violence. Never has a dirty limerick felt so scary.

I am of two minds about The Girl. If only it was a complete work of fiction with imaginary characters, I could tell you that it was a great film about abuse, harassment and power dynamics against women in the workplace. It’s a story worth telling, it’s a more cinematic film than Hitchcock and I am glad I saw this movie, but I cannot simply dismiss somebody as a sexual predator simply from watching a film.

Not to dispel anybody who has been a victim of emotional or physical abuse, but I cannot verify whether the events in this film really happened or not. As a viewer, I can go as far as viewing it as an interesting speculation at best. I simply cannot answer the film’s plea for justice the way it demanded.

That’s the choice everybody will have to make when watching The Girl: do you believe it for fact or does it stop as an interesting speculation?

Verdict: 
It’s hard to access if this was successful because I cannot rewind and experience this in another way, but I do this works as a solution. Mainly because I had to digest both films together in their individual goals and this is as fair an assessment I could have given for both films individually. It was an ironic experience because the two films have completely opposite depictions of Alfred Hitchcock.

Let me know what you think! =)