Joaquin Phoenix is Still Here
It’s that time of year again. Forget all the pumpkin spice lattes, changing leaves and back to school clothing. It’s fall at the movies and that means after a summer full of disappointments (yeah I mean you Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises) Paul Thomas Anderson has given us moviegoers a reason to believe in the magic of film again with his latest, The Master. Not since a year ago at almost this exact time (with Drive) has a movie sparked so much wonder and curiosity for me. In devouring all that I can on the internet related to The Master one question seems to be running through everybody’s mind, “So, what does it mean?” The better question to reflect upon is why do we need to search so hard for a definitive answer. Anderson proves yet again that ambiguity (how about them frogs in Magnolia?) is better than laying out a clear explanation with wordy exposition.
The Master makes no real significant comments on Scientology or even on the life of L. Ron Hubbard, which Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is based on. Instead, Anderson uses both as a background for the real focus of the film which is the relationship between Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Photography teachers tell their students to take a series of three pictures with whatever subject they aim to capture. One taken from afar and then two that are zoomed in and focused on specific details that attract curiosity. Anderson uses this method to perfection in that Scientology, Hubbard and various details of his life serve as the far away shot or rather the grand scope of the film.
While on another level of detail there is the relationship between Lancaster and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) who proves to be the even greater woman people speak of behind great men. Finally, with even more attention to detail there rests the mysterious connection Lancaster and Freddie have with each other. I’m not sure either of them have a solid grasp on why it is that they can’t seem to let each other go and I’m glad they don’t. Their discovery and investigation of one another made me want to see them interact for two more hours. It’s mesmerizing. The Master does not serve as the ground for Anderson to spew his agenda on Scientology, but is more a way for him to inspire questions of self-reflection and the relationships that develop out of deep, sometimes surprising connections.
Having seen Amy Adams twice in one weekend with The Master and Trouble with the Curve I had myself questioning if it was really the same actress in both. Whether closely by his side or out of focus but in frame Peggy is constantly there with Lancaster. Even in the scenes she is physically absent from her presence with perfect hairdos and piercing glances lingers. Through a series of forceful monologues and one particularly disturbing scene we gather that not only is she the driving force behind the organization called The Cause but she works through Lancaster to get what she wants and she is damn good at it (ladies might keep in mind Peggy’s methods with that sink scene for years to come…no pun intended). A woman of the 1950s working through a man to get what she wants. Mmm how wondrously progressive.
From Enchanted to The Master Amy Adams jump is a bit more surprising than the transformation of Joaquin Phoenix. Somehow I feel like his self-proclaimed “acting” (I’m not sure I believe it was all a hoax) in I’m Still Here gave him some good preparation for the often times erratic behavior found in Freddie Quell. From his barely there fingernails to the almost animalistic arch in his back Phoenix has captured a perfect representation of a man utterly lost in a post-World War II society. His life prior to meeting Lancaster is filled with making lethal hooch, screwing girls completely unaware just how dangerous he can be and taking work where he can get it. Freddie is truly at his best though when in the company of Lancaster. He acts as a wake-up call, however brief, for Freddie to realize life may not be that easy to slip through unnoticed with his strange behavior. The peculiar power dynamic between the two slips into creepy “shame on you mode” often enough to make some audience members uncomfortable (for instance my second viewing partner).
Philip Seymour Hoffman is really at his best for me. I am well aware what a great actor he is and how many other fantastic roles he has had, but there was something so inviting about his take on Lancaster. After years of playing incredibly creepy characters with those blonde eyebrows this was a welcome surprise. Lancaster is the kind of guy that never walks by without saying hello, the kind that can liven up even the dullest of rooms. He can teach you, process you, marry you and the list goes on as he has no problem telling Freddie in their first (sober) meeting. It is no wonder Freddie wants to make this guy his best batch of hooch. And it is with all of Lancaster’s magic that the moments between only him and Freddie light up the screen.
An armrest clinging moment the two share early on in the film is some of the more intense screen time I’ve seen since Daniel Plainview and H.W. squared off. Throughout the movie you will wonder if this is the story of two lovers or merely great friends. Do they like each other because they are exact opposites or does each just strive to be like the other? I am comfortable with not being completely sure the true nature of their relationship because quite frankly I don’t think I want to know.
Not only does The Master have some career defining performances, but it is freaking gorgeous. Shot on 70mm every detail is crisp and the colors jump off screen making every shot like a piece of art especially the close-ups of Freddie where his difficult life reads all over his face. The symmetry of There Will Be Blood is rivaled by The Master as each shot feels like it was carefully crafted with love. However, the real star to me is the score crafted by Jonny Greenwood, the master (no pun intended) behind the music of There Will Be Blood. He has done it again and with just one track titled “Alethia” you can get a feel of what the entire film is like. The song feels mysterious, curious and naughty all at the same time much like Freddie and Lancaster. The whole film features an amazing score by Greenwood and classics like “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” by Ella Fitzgerald and “No Other Love” by Jo Stafford. Not only are the music selections fitting for the time but if you listen closely and pay attention to placement some of the songs seem on the nose, perhaps in my opinion hinting at the true nature of the relationship between the two men. Stafford’s song reads:
No Other Love can warm my heart
Now that I’ve known the comfort of your arms
No other love.
Oh the sweet contentment that I find with you Every Time
No other lips could want you more for I was born to glory in your kiss.
It may be a stretch but I find great curiosity in the choosing of this song. A comfort comes across on the screen when Lancaster and Freddie are alone so much so that it seems meant to be. And do not get me started with Helen Forrest’s “Changing Partners” singing the sorrows of losing her dance partner mirroring the challenges Lancaster and Freddie face in their fight to stay together.
Even as I write this I realize that for all puzzling details in The Master perhaps it is all there for each one of us to put back together in our own way. While the film is an exploration of one relationship I was hit with a wave of personal reflection after one of the last scenes. Is this not what is desired from movies today? With endless sequels and what seems to be a growing lack of originality what more could you ask for in a film than one that inspires conversation and is endlessly refreshing? As a wise man said to me leaving the theater, “You just don’t see movies like that today.”
One last thought: Freddie Quell’s eerie, inappropriate laugh will haunt me for days.