Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman. 1950s Period Drama. Written & directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
FILM SYNOPSIS: Itís 1950, and a naval veteran with social issues is still unsettled by the war. Uncertain of his future, fate steps in and he meets ďThe Master,Ē a charismatic intellectual who fronts his own organization known as The Cause, a cult founded on a belief in reincarnation and hypnotism to reveal past lives.
PREVIEW REVIEW: Like last yearís Tree of Life, this is a work of art and may indeed contain the best screen performance Iíve seen in decades. Actually, two of the best performances Iíve seen in decades. Unlike Tree of Life, which was an impressionistic, thought-provoking hymn to life, The Master fails to use its artistic cleverness to uplift the soul.
The Cause is a cult run by a charlatan who has most likely convinced himself along with his following that his basis of belief rests not just with reincarnation, but with the added conviction that we have been inhabiting the bodies of others for trillions of years. (Not even secularists believe the planet has been around trillions of years.) His pseudo intellectual theory is mostly the McGuffin (a word coined by Alfred Hitchcock as an object or event in a film that serves as the impetus for the plot), as the film is not so much about the exposure of fraudulent practices as it is about two desperate men seeking someone or something in which to trust. The ex-Navy man has been embraced by the founder of this group, maintaining they knew each other in a previous life.
Joaquin Phoenix gives a penetrating performance as Freddie Quell, a disturbed young man with aggressive, often violent behavior patterns. Freddie has connected with Lancaster Dodd, the Master, played with equal dimension and charismatic appeal by Philip Seymour Hoffman. I simply canít remember two more brilliantly fleshed-out screen characters than these, nor two more award-worthy performances.
Mr. Phoenix seems to be channeling Montgomery Clift from Judgment at Nuremberg, as well as Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. It is the most intense, concentrated portrayal since Brando in On the Waterfront (still the greatest cinematic performance Iíve ever experienced). One scene between the two male leads had an astounded collection of critics at a recent screening uttering ďWowĒ as many wiped away a tear as Dodd in a therapeutic session breaks through Freddieís defenses. It is without question the most moving, compelling screen moment youíll experience at the movies this year.
Now, thatís the former actor in me saluting a talent that only comes to a handful of gifted thespians who can truly be called artists (Meryl Streep, Marlon Brando, Daniel Day Lewis, a few others). A rare breed, these thespians transcend play-acting, bringing the same skill and complexity to their creations as DID Michelangelo through the sculpting of marble. But is my enthusiasm meant to entice you into going to the film?
Besides the content (please read the ďreasons for the ratingĒ section), the film left me with what can only be expressed as a feeling of emptiness mixed with depression. Does that sound like a fun Friday night at the movies? It is, sadly, a case where the profundity is outweighed by the rating reason.
Itís always sad for this film buff to sit through a film populated by ďreligiousĒ people ruled by dogma rather than grace. It is equally disheartening to view screen characters who represent lives structured not by faith in God, but by faith in absurdity. Now, to be fair, the film isnít outrightly attacking organized religion. But in its subtle way, it dismisses God. At one point, Freddie is asked if he believes God will save him. He matter-of-factly replies no. Thatís about it for God or matters of eternity in this film. There is no genuine look at a spiritual connection between humanity and a higher power. Itís about human behavior based upon lives previously lived.
Certainly, there are comparisons to the Church of Scientology, but I found the analogies representative of any belief system founded, promoted and governed by one draconian leader. Itís good to see such organizations exposed, but also sad to realize that so many people look for more than the Bible and our Savior have to offer. For me, as a Christian, I can only see the organization in the film, like any cult, as something that serves to lead people away from the teachings of Jesus. It poignantly depicts the fact that thereís always somebody who wants to follow anyone other than Christ.
Still, I donít discourage anyone from seeing a film merely because of the theories expressed by a fictional group. There isnít any solid structure to the presentation of the religious direction given in the movie, so itís hard to take The Cause as serious philosophy. Thatís why I refer to it as a McGuffin. The organizationís structure is not the reason we are watching the film. Rather, we are mesmerized by the behavior of the two leads. What do they truly believe? What will become of them? Will they find the truth?
No, ideas are not why I would discourage the support of the film. Often, viewing someone elseís philosophy can cause us to think about and perhaps desire to develop our own. But the content, in keeping with todayís screen realism, is so raw that it unnerves.
The sexuality in the film, which includes three sexual situations, as well as the lead masturbating into a figure of a woman made out of beach sand, is animal like. Iím sure that was the intent of the filmmaker, as he reveals the mental process of the character, but these visuals are unpleasant to view and excessive in their presentation. Nowhere in this film is sex an expression of a fulfillment of love between two people. So, itís not romantic and itís not sensual. Itís just disturbing.
I suspect there are those who find my reluctance to view blatant sexual activity on the screen as pious or repressed. Such is not the case. Iíd be anything but truthful if I didnít admit to the appreciation of the female form, especially when illustrated by the likes of Hollywoodís continuously changing stable of starlets. But look around at our culture, which is so dominated by the entertainment community. Doesnít it strike you that we are being desensitized and bombarded by all things crude and illicit?
Reverence, respect and self-regulation donít seem to be qualities often reflected by the motion picture industry. And I think itís having a negative effect on all of us. Does anybody believe that the cruding down of the culture serves the society? If Hollywood wonít draw a line, itís up to us to do so. We must all ask ourselves if we are willing to follow biblical teachings found in Philippians 4:8, Psalms 101 and Ephesians 5:11.
This isnít to infer that the filmmaker was attempting to be exploitive. Iím sure everything included in the script can be defended as revealing of the charactersí motives and actions. But we as a society have become so accustomed to situations and dialogue once found objectionable by moviegoers. Not all change is progress.
There is one line I found impactful. Freddie Quell, besides not having both oars in the water, is also a drunk. A serious drunk. He blacks out from binge drinking, and canít seem to take on any life challenge without being reinforced by alcohol. At one point, a person gently asks him, ďYou canít take this life straight, can you?Ē
I thought that was a powerful and relatable line, as I think we all have our addictions, or foibles, or areas of life we just arenít willing to give over to God. As soon as we do take control of some of characteristic of contention, then another is soon exposed. As I sat there, feeling sorry for those whose addictions were destroying the body and soul, I realized how lost we all would be if not for Godís grace and Christís sacrifice.
How blessed we are, including those who head up denominations or churches, thinking they are just a bit more redeemed than those worshipping down the street, to be able to go to a God of grace, understanding and patience.