I need to get the lighting right," mutters the man with the camera in "The Master," one of the few truly vital and unruly American films in recent years.
The man is Freddie Quell, a World War II Navy veteran suffering from what has been diagnosed as a nervous condition. He's a long way, adjustment-wise, from the disenchanted returning vet author
Freddie's far gone: An alcoholic, a brawler and a survivor of a harsh and unloving childhood, as well as untold horrors of combat, he is pulled into one scrape and out another, sneering as if an invisible fishhook had gotten snagged in his upper lip. By the time he lands a job as a department store portrait photographer in 1950, he feels no less at sea than he did in the South Pacific.
Crouching behind his tripod, Freddie is plagued by a nasty hangover and last night's flop date with a co-worker. His mood is not good. Freddie takes an instant dislike to his latest customer. He keeps inching his floor lamp closer to his adversary's sweating face. "It's too hot," the customer says. Freddie pushes the lamp an inch or two closer. It's a bizarrely funny scene, and
Eventually Freddie finds himself in the company of a fellow misfit.
No Anderson film will ever reach that state. Anderson has never placed neatness ahead of the happy accident or the sidewinding discovery. "The Master" is brilliantly, wholly itself for a little more than half of its 137 minutes. Then it chases its own tail a bit and settles for being merely a fascinating metaphoric father-son relationship reaching endgame. It may not all "work," but most of it's remarkable. And the best of it matches or exceeds writer-director Anderson's previous film, "There Will Be Blood" (2007), which in many ways was the film, the portrait of American dreamers and exploiters, of its decade.
Much has been written about "The Master" and its oddness, and one of the oddest of its personality traits is how straightforward it is on one level, and how challenging on others. One evening, after his toxic homemade moonshine (whose ingredients include paint thinner) leads to a migrant worker's death, Freddie is scuttling down by the waterfront in
Already, the shot in "The Master" of the yacht chugging out into the night, under the
In step with Anderson's conception of Freddie, a hairy ape straight out of
There are moments, and whole scenes, such as Freddie and Dodd side by side in jail cells, when Phoenix goes nuts in ways that leave characterization in the dust. For better or worse, the actor can be all Method in his madness, and not enough selectivity. Anderson sometimes allows scenes to play out just past their expiration date. As the story of "The Master" moves to
"The Master" doesn't explicitly lay out how a religion, or a cult, or a belief along the lines of Scientology manages to draw a crowd. Rather, the movie makes the "how" clear and, at its best, unforgettable, by showing, not telling. The people on screen are not conventionally sympathetic, or heroic, or villainous, but interesting. (One of the sharpest exchanges, between Hoffman's sputtering Dodd and
"The Master" Movie Trailer
MPAA rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity and language).
Running time: 2:17.
Credits: Written and directed by
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