Much has been said about the "snub" the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gave to Quentin Tarantino and Kathryn Bigelow, by not nominating them in the director category despite nominating their pictures for best film. It's something that could be seen as a rejection of sorts over the controversial stature of Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty as films that deal frankly and in an adult manner with uncomfortable things about slavery and war. However, a lot less has been said about the equally significant snub given to Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, nominated only for the acting awards. While not surprising, given the film's cool, bewildered reception it got from audiences and critics alike, it is the equal of Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Tarantino's snubs, as The Master is also a film about an uncomfortable truth of the American dream and the American experience - though one couched in Mr. Anderson's traditionally opaque and wayward allegories.
Here, the director experiments with the glowing, "we've never had it so good" façade of the post-war United States, deploying through its brightly coloured, 70mm compositions (lovingly shot by DP Mihai Malaimare Jr.) the visual classicism and seductive optimism of the golden age of modernism, to schizophrenic, subversive ends. Behind this façade lies the tale of a fractured soul, an aimless WWII veteran with no particular skill other than concocting bizarre alcohol mixtures, finding this new era of affluence seems to be off-limits to him. Freddie Quell, as portrayed in an angular, teetering way by Joaquin Phoenix, is less a complete human being than a enigma that can never be truly understood, in search of that which will make him complete, thinking it may lie in the peculiar creed of "The Cause", a mysterious, elusive cult peddled by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd.
Whether Dodd, given a seductive, poignantly human depth by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is making it up as he goes along or truly believes in what he is saying, is ultimately of no importance; what matters is trying to understand what makes Freddie Freddie or Dodd Dodd. The Master reduces itself to the meeting of two men whose paths converge for a brief while, both of them yearning for something the other one has (or thinks that he has) and realising the impossibility of ever truly stepping outside themselves, particularly in the context of an America where community and individualism were about to split into not necessarily contiguous paths through consumerism.
It is, to be sure, a cerebral, often opaque picture, which is entirely in keeping with Mr. Anderson's constant separation of form and content; and his novelistic, writerly take on film is an attempt to put into purely visual storytelling something that is more attuned to the leisurely rhythms of reading. And yet, the sheer mystery and questioning raised by The Master (starting with its own rather puzzling title - who exactly is the master and who is the follower here?) keeps you on your toes, tantalizing you to go back and try to understand more and more about this dissonant, utterly fascinating mind trip. No wonder the Academy couldn't make heads or tails of it.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern
Director, writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cinematography: Mihai Malaimare Jr. (colour)
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Designers: Jack Fisk, David Crank
Costumes: Mark Bridges
Editors: Leslie Jones, Peter McNulty
Producers: Joanne Sellar, Daniel Lupi, Mr. Anderson, Megan Ellison (Joanne Sellar Productions, Ghoulardi Film Company, Annapurna Pictures)
USA, 2012, 137 minutes
Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), December 14th 2012