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There's something startlingly noncommittal about many of the initial reviews of The Masterwhich leaked out following the impromptu screenings writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson organized in 70mm—equipped houses across the country, and later in response to the film's official bow at the Venice Film Festival. And that's perhaps the natural, if not the most productive, response to a film that, like the central character played by Joaquin Phoenix, resists conforming to any preconceived template of what it could or should be.

Instead, Anderson has delivered a free-form work of expressionism, more room-size painting than biopic, star vehicle or even traditional character study, mirroring Hubbard's story when convenient while strenuously avoiding direct representation. As with Boogie Nights and There Will Be BloodAnderson takes what he needs from history to recast his own story, yet he has never made a film so elusive.

Structurally similar to the Oscar-winning There Will Be BloodThe Master begins with the origin story of how an iconoclast s a community that he'll then struggle to live within, leading to a final confrontation with a man with whom he shares an adversarial and primal connection. He's a pervert and a drunk who's equally likely to kick a party into high gear by whipping up homemade booze or bring it to a dead halt by acting like a fucking weirdo.

Did the war do it to him, or did collective catastrophe give him a space in which to almost blend in? Forced to assimilate back into the real world, he takes a gig as a department store photographer.

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He's probably in it for access to chemicals he can treat as liquor, but the job also gives this longtime itinerant a measure of control — in a circus replica of postwar domestic-consumer fantasy. He can be in the system and at the same time gnaw away at it. That's a mode of being that he'll repeat. Always on the run from some scrape, Freddie eventually ends up passing out drunk on a yacht carrying Dodd and his family. Dodd's teachings are mostly deed to help followers control their emotions by accessing their past experiences, either in their current lives or ones.

Does he want to?

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Processing puts Freddie inside scenes and feelings from his past — essentially what Method acting tries to get to through affective memory. It follows that Phoenix's performance is the most easily embraceable element of the movie, not least because, in its all-in commitment and sometimes baffling physicality, it seems to reflect Phoenix's own past-life experience of all-in performance as self-destruction. Remember, this guy hasn't made a movie since I'm Still Here.

Shoulders hunched, arms swinging, his face snarled to one side in the picture definition of a mug, his body language is live-action Popeye, without muscles. In the second half, as Dodd draws out Freddie's tendency toward violence as defense, anything cartoonish hardens. The relationship and performances driving it hit their peak in an incredible single shot of the two in side-by-side jail cells: One man is a frenzy of rage; the other remains fixed and contained, yet both master and servant ultimately are reduced to screaming children.

The film rises and falls on the magnetic pull between these two, the inexplicable loyalty they feel to one another.

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We're never fully allowed inside their bond, in part because Anderson refuses to give viewers a fixed point of emotional identification. A scene in which Dodd sings and dances with a roomful of naked women seems to be a fantasy, but whose? Are these the idle imaginings of antisocial pervert Freddie? Is Dodd practicing the old trick of picturing his audience without armor?

Or is the following scene, where Dodd's wife Amy Adams busts his balls while offering them mechanical relief, a al that the apparent male fantasy was in fact a woman-behind-the-man's paranoid delusion? Is this all vague enough for you?

The film's ambiguity could hardly be unintentional, but more interesting is Anderson's use of sumptuous technique to tell a story defined by withholding. The viewing experience, akin to grasping for something just out of reach in a dream or trying to read subtitles through an old pair of glasses, is neatly mirrored by one of Dodd's exercises, in which Freddie is forced to pace a room and describe the same wall and the same window with new language each time. It's a film of breathtaking cinematic romanticism and near-complete denial of conventional catharsis.

You might wish it gave you more in terms of comfort-food pleasure, but that's not Anderson's problem. You've just seen too many movies about incommunicative fuckups who manage to break down their defenses at some convenient third-act moment, assuring that order will be restored. By not opening up that valve, The Master forces the question of whether personality change is possible — or even advisable. How can we help you? Sweet James has my permission to help provide a free police report.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman stars in The Master. Police Report Request Form. You can learn more about how we use cookies by reviewing our Privacy Policy.

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