Friday, September 21, 2012

Masterpiece Theater

The Master       Final Cut Score: 95%

Is there an actor who can sell having a screw loose more surely than Joaquin Phoenix? This is a guy who had humanity convinced he had tossed acting in the trash heap for a run as a rapper monikered "Young Pheezy". Spaced out and Joaquin Phoenix are seemingly interchangeable.

With that bizarre sabbatical now in his past, Phoenix is back in a behemothic way with his magnum opus in The Master, a blindingly brilliant character study from cinema's most prodigiously skilled auteur, Paul Thomas Anderson.

Whether the Weinstein Company wishes to concede it or not, The Master is clearly based on the origins of the Scientology movement, the equally sensational Philip Seymour Hoffman playing the group's buttery big cheese, L. Ron Hubbard Lancaster Dodd. The self-help Svengali pushing his "processing" upon his band of followers in 1950s America.

Stumbling upon Dodd's cause in the midst of a drunken stupor, Freddie Quell (Phoenix) quickly becomes Dodd's pet project; Dodd extracting past lives from Freddie's mind in exchange for a batch of Freddie's  homemade hooch. While smashing through the security walls surrounding the anti-conformist's soul would require the impact of an A-bomb, Dodd persists in his mission to reprogram Freddie's thoughts and impulses.

And man alive does Freddie have some impulse control issues; a rabid rottweiler has a longer fuse than the World War II vet. Upon getting thrown in the clink for defending his newly found Zen master, Phoenix unleashes the film's signature scene: Slamming his skull into the cell's bunk beds and obliterating the toilet with an MMA KO kick, Phoenix is ferocious. Anderson makes the scene that much more stunning, shooting it with his patented "zero edits" treatment; Phoenix and Hoffman trading lines after the demolition derby in one seamless - astonishing - take.

Phoenix gives a superhuman performance, it's a mercurial master class in acting. Walking hunchbacked, speaking solely from the left side of his Two-Face-shaped mouth, a gaze into Phoenix's eyes reveals a soul that's irreparably damaged. It's Hoffman's unceasing efforts to lure Phoenix fully into the fold that form the very frame of The Master; their battle of wills boil beneath each and every interaction between the pair.

Anderson - working off his own screenplay - imprints the picture with his trademarked elegance and technical bravado. His aforementioned extended-extended takes are pure cinematic panache. For my money, there's no finer director capable of producing accessible art than Anderson; The Master should be hung on a wall at the Met.

Mirroring what's required of Freddie to convert to Dodd's doctrine of being, the film demands an ordinate amount of patience and dedication - this is the antithesis of mindless entertainment. The Master is a character study of monumental proportions, I'm still thinking about it days after the screening. It would seem the film's "processing" was a resounding success.