TIFF 2012 Review: THE MASTER, Brilliant, Confounding, and/or Terrible
You are going to look at me, and you're not going to blink. I'm going to tell you a series of things about this film, and if you blink, I'll have to start again.
The Master is a hypnotic film. It's hypnotic in that it repeats itself, repeating phrases and instances and scenes and moments so that through repetition it gets under your skin. You watch it and you are walking from the window to the wall, from the window to the wall, searching to feel something other than what's in front of you. Is that a man on a ship, or is that a drunk on screen, a spent actor making his "comeback" after failed attempts at socially destructive irony?
The film repeats and repeats, and seems to always be moving forward but doesn't really move very far at all. We're listening to actors shout, we're listening to ideas be put in place, but then when we get there, when we get to that end after quite a long stay, when we're there where we think we've been going the whole time?
Maybe there was nothing there to begin with. Maybe it's all a facade, maybe we're sucked in by a compelling story, about titillation from taking on something almost real. Maybe this is the first failure at narrative by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Maybe The Master is a terrible film.
You blinked. We have to start again.
This is just not the story of The Master and his servile companion, this is a story of The Master and his Id. This is a film with behaviours flying in the face of psychological convention that reads as almost entirely Freudian. This is one of the great ironies of The Master, as well as that other group that The Master teases at talking about, that the very mechanisms that make "The Cause" work, the very methods of discussion or interrogation or confrontation or analysis or brainwashing, are twists of the methods of the founder of modern psychology with his talking cure.
The Master is a Freudian film. The Master is an anti Freudian film. The Master cannot be pinned down so easily whatever your prejudice. The Master is a confounding film. The Master is a brilliant, confounding film.
You blinked. We have to start again.
Joaquin Phoenix is amazing in this film by being an animal. He talks from the side of his mouth, he holds his arms by his sides and walks with the gait of a gorilla. His character is all impulse, all the things The Master is trying to rid from us, trying to rid our Animal selves from our real selves.
We see Joaquin drink and fuck and fight. We see an animal on screen, and by the end, we've seen little to show that the animal has evolved, save for that the animal has learned a few new tricks in order to better drink and fuck and fight. We see no arc in this arc. This is a character plateau, a salt flat, a place where you ride your motorcycle to whatever point you want as fast as you can.
In The Master, Phillip Seymor Hoffman is a monster. He is the monster master, the master of monsters, he is masterfully toying with lies and truths and deceits and convictions and does so with a grace and elegance that belies his skills as an actor.
He too changes very little, he too rides his motorcycle across that salt flat, he too by the end has changed very little, he too by the end makes us wonder just what point we were riding those motorcycles to in the first place, what point we were to ride as fast as we can until we get somewhere only to see in the end the shape diminishing in the distance, an audience left in a theatre with its lights now turned on, foolish walking after that motorcycle along the salt flats trying to catch up at something that has passed us by.
These two men will overshadow the central female character in the film, but Amy Adams is extraordinary. She has supernatural eyes, she is the matriarch who doubts, the pregnant woman who helps birth the ideas, who remains true to the convictions of The Cause. She has the look of a frightened teenager and the smile of a carefree singer from some Muppet film but in an instant manages to convey some of the coldest, most penetrating and least bombastic terror in the film. She is not to be fucked with, and she is fucking with you the whole time.
We have no milkshakes here. We have no straws. We have no moments where the delightful turns and twists and anticipations coalesce, or don't coalesce, in an interesting way. Things don't coalesce, but they do so in a way that's not very interesting. We're left with a pile, a puddle, a series of moments and little to show, a series of conversations without a coherent topic.
The question, then, is whether the emptiness of much of the film supplants what we want from this movie. We want it to be great. After all, The Master is a brilliant film. We want it to be. We want some sense, some sense of catharsis, or anti-catharsis, or at least some sense that we and the filmmakers were along for the same ride.
In the end, I think Paul Thomas Anderson and friends were on a ride that I wasn't invited on. They picked a point off into the distance, and I thought they picked a different one. As they were riding along, as fast as they could, I was waiting for them to steer, to go in a direction I thought they should. Any direction, really. I'm not sure they ever had a point, not sure they had a place they were riding to.
They were just riding.
They were on that motorcycle, going as fast as they could, and it still took 2 1/2 hours. And it was brilliant. And it was empty.
The Master is brilliant and/or confounding and/or terrible. It may be talked about for the ages or forgotten in a few years. It may be a masterpiece, and/or it may be empty of content masked by strong moments of acting prowess and visual flare. It is a repetitive film. The Master may, indeed, be brilliant, but it is a hard film to love, and an easy film to hate.
The Master ... is.
You can blink now.