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.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Tomas Alfredson

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Tomas Alfredson

In the bleak days of the Cold War, espionage veteran George Smiley is forced from semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet agent within MI6.

I cannot fault you for not liking Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It demands that you keep up with it wholeheartedly with 100% undivided attention. Once you put in all the work the film is demanding and fully immerse into its hypersensitive world of subtleties, it becomes a rewarding experience. A blink feels like a gunshot. A facial tick becomes a car chase. Everybody is looking behind their backs.

Director Tomas Alfredson does nothing to make it easy either. Let’s list the things: 1) The story has a non-linear plot structure that the audience needs to piece together. 2) There is no explanation for the spy lingo. 3) The audience must play detective along with George Smiley, tracking who said what to whom, matching it to what was said in a previous scene to deduce if they are lying. Lying is an art form in itself. Are they lying entirely? Or just omitting a detail? What motivates a lie?

The film completely functions on a thematic level. Gary Oldman said in an BBC5 interview that director Tomas Alfredson doesn’t even think he made a spy thriller, which confirms my point. This is not a story about espionage at all. No, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about mistrust. It’s about these men confined in tight spaces perpetually spying on each other and how it alienates them apart. Humanity is a weakness and compromises their survival as spies. Every character in the film battles with their own humanity to survive. There is a great scene where Gary Oldman’s George Smiley lies to another character with a perfect poker face. The bleak coldness that he exudes is intense and shocking. The subplot with Smiley’s wife artfully gives insight to the Smiley character. We never get a good look at the wife because she exists as an idea – she is the deal he has to make with the devil. Home is where Smiley is at his most vulnerable and we see the consequences of Smiley’s commitment to his cold-hearted profession.

Since I’m a Sherlock fan, I loved seeing Benedict Cumberbatch rise through the ranks into films now. He’s great as Gary Oldman’s younger sidekick who is still wet behind the ears. I look forward to seeing him in the next Star Trek movie. Please don’t make him play Khan. It would be a waste. Toby Jones’ face screams red herring. Alfredson films Jones in a way that makes him look like an evil leprechaun, similar to how Sergio Leone’s penchant for filming faces as if they were landscapes.

Speaking of which, this film has great cinematography in that it tells the story. The film is about discovering truth amongst a cloud of lies and the cinematography really serves that idea visually. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema has managed to find layers of shadow in places that I didn’t know exist, like the backseat of a car. The camera moves, like the pan shots, really give a sense of place that constructs the moody, smoky, morally ambiguous atmosphere. With the long lenses, the audience is looking into the lives of these spies seated in tight spaces, as if we are watching them suffocate.

Something really noteworthy is how they utilized is Gary Oldman’s glasses as a plot device. Yes, Hint! Notice George Smiley’s glasses in every scene. It’s used like Maggie Cheung’s dresses in In The Mood For Love. What’s genius about is it forces you to look at Gary Oldman’s eyes, which both guides your eyes to his performance and immerses you along with his investigation of what’s going on as he interviews each suspect.

Hands down, Gary Oldman should win the Oscar. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. How does an actor underplay a role to this degree and still manage to be this engaging? Due to the Academy’s usual taste of rewarding showy loud performances, it seems unlikely Oldman will win the gold statuette. It’s a subtle performance completely constructed around what he’s not showing and what he is not saying. But at least the Academy recognized the brilliance of his performance. It’s a step, right?