Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master baits the audience.
One notable reviewer, in a major magazine, ended his rave: "He [Anderson] clarifies nothing, but leaves us brooding on our own confusion."
Some of us prefer more clarity and less pretension. I'm brooding, but I don't think I'm confused.
One may admire The Master for its scope, style, and maybe some of the acting, but its vision is myopic.
Let's zoom in on the lint in PTA's navel.
The Master is about a battle of wills in a squared circle. It's in the neighborhood of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology.
In one corner we have Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a controversial spiritual movement. He is a smooth-talking, hooch-drinking figure of authority. He leads with ego, guile, and personality.
In the other corner we have Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic vagrant, who was psychologically-wounded in the Second World War and by an institutionalized mother, and who knows what other terrors.
It's like a battle between Foghorn Leghorn and Daffy Duck.
Freddie stows away on a yacht where he meets Dodd and comes under his guidance. Dodd manipulates a willing Freddie, but there are flaws in the manipulation, and Freddie is not always compliant.
As the movement - "The Cause" - grows larger and comes under greater attack, Freddie becomes Dodd's physical muscle.
The battle for identity continues.
What the two leading characters don't seem to realize is the influence and power of women.
On the yacht Peggy (Amy Adams) awakens Freddie. Doris (Madisen Beaty), his hometown infatuation, becomes his lifelong delusion. Women lay hands on men. Peggy controls and instructs her vulnerable husband Lancaster.
Freddie lies next to a woman made of sand on a wartime beach. And in a climactic scene, Freddie gives orders to a woman (Jennifer Neale Page) as she is atop him. The woman-on-top's name is Winn. Are you kidding, PTA?
The acting in The Master has received fulsome praise. Philip Seymour Hoffman is remarkable as the leader of the band. In the only subtle performance in the film, Amy Adams exhibits a provocative strength as the frank wife.
Laura Dern is convincing as a follower who questions the changes in Dodd's philosophy. In a clever piece of casting, Patty McCormack portrays another follower of the movement. Now 67 years old, McCormack as a child came to fame in The Bad Seed (1956).
The actor who most emphasizes the pretension in The Master is Joaquin Phoenix. Affecting a pose like an addled, awkward Buster Keaton, Phoenix gives a "look at me, Ma, I'm acting" performance.
Spontaneously Phoenix farts. Then he guffaws. Now that's some pungent acting.
Does one care about Freddie's odyssey from naive clod to experienced clod? A "free" clod is still a clod.
Directors often are effectively self-indulgent. Robert Altman - PTA's mentor - certainly was, but he rarely was pretentious. Even when he was - as with an underrated film like Images (1972) - it was enticing.
Can one say the same about PTA?
Paul Thomas Anderson may have more in common with Lancaster Dodd than we recognize. His trip to enlightenment depends on his followers - no matter how confused they may be.
It seems the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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