I've just had the most extraordinary three day personal film festival. I saw eight films including my third, fourth, and fifth five star productions for the year (and two four and a half star pictures). In rapid succession, I saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Snow White and the Huntsmen, Dark Shadows, The Master, Argo, Marley, Looper, and Moonrise Kingdom. Now, I have to start churning out some reviews before they (and the set of three DVD reviews I was already due to write) all start getting mixed up in my head. How strange, then, that the one I'm going to start with is the one that I feel the least prepared to write about after a single viewing.
Many pictures reveal hidden meanings and layers upon multiple viewings, but every now and then you see a film that you know you were completely unable to absorb completely the first time out. That's why I watched The Tree of Life three times through before I returned the DVD. It took that much exposure to really grasp the film. I felt that way when I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild in the theater earlier this year. I knew the moment that it ended that the first half of the film would make a lot more sense thematically after seeing how it ended, and the end would make more sense after seeing the first part again. Still waiting. This is exactly how I felt as I left the theater at the end of The Master.
Paul Thomas Anderson is an amazing auteur. It is almost impossible to believe that this is only his sixth film. It lives up to its predecessors in every way. His attention to detail, nuance, and tone is always deliberate and precise. His ability to draw character out of allegory and allegory out of character is nearly unmatched, comparable to Altman. Anderson never insults the intelligence of his audience, leaving some of the work up to the viewer. This, of course, turns some viewers off. Those who appreciate this kind of challenge, however, will find themselves richly rewarded for their keen attention.
The look of this picture is exquisite. High praise is in order for cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., production designers David Crank and Jack Fisk, and costumer Mark Bridges. Johnny Greenwood's score was sort of erratic and a bit jarring. I don't know if it will be at all the Academy's thing, but I thought that it did an excellent job of punctuating the action and drama without calling undue attention to itself.
Which brings us to the actors. Anderson has a real talent for large ensemble casts. But while many fine performances were given by actors in smaller roles (Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek, and Laura Dern), this film focused apologetically upon the three figures at its dramatic center. They are almost id, ego, and super-ego.
We meet Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell first. Phoenix is almost unrecognizable inside the Freddie character. He is a beast of a man, simian in poster, primitive in his reactions, and totally lacking in self control. Everything about the famously eccentric Mr. Phoenix's performance conveys this: the tone and laziness of diction with which he speaks, the way he holds his face, the way he looks down or away from people when he speaks to them, and everything about the way he moves and positions his body. It is the best performance I have ever seen from this actor and deserves every bit of praise that has previously been heaped upon it.
His polar (and we do mean polar) opposite in this trinity is Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd. She is one cool character, all poise and reason. You see glimpses of the fire underneath, but only what she wants you to see. In The Fighter, Adams showed she had range beyond sweetness and innocence, but she was still essentially a brassy little girl. Here, she shows that she can play a sophisticated woman, one with morally murky motivations, one who can master the Master. Again, my favorite performance by this actress ever.
Finally, you have the man caught between them, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd. He is certainly charismatic as the would be cult leader, and at first seems as polished and controlled as his wife, but you can tell as the film progresses that there is something deep inside him that is very much like Freddy. I can't wait to re watch this powerful performance at a later date and see what clues I missed to this double nature in the first half of the movie.
As I said before, I'm still sorting out the film thematically. Perhaps I'll find an excuse to go into greater detail on that later in the season, after a second viewing. Much of the film, however, was very similar to Beasts of the Southern Wild except flipped on its head. Whereas Hushpuppy was raised to accept her animal nature and place within the natural world, Lancaster tries to teach Freddy to separate himself from the animal kingdom and rely on pure detached intellect. It doesn't work for Freddy, and it doesn't seem to really be working for Lancaster. In fact, you wonder at times which of them is failing to teach the other what they really need to know.
This film could prove to be too weird for the Academy, but its hard to imagine it not DESERVING Best Picture and Director kudos. Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Original Screenplay still seem like no-brainers for this film. All of the craft categories I mentioned above could be in play as well as Editing if Picture and Director come through.
This film may prove to be too dark or cerebral for some tastes, but I found it thoroughly enjoyable, enriching, and tightly crafted. Anderson's legacy as a brilliant auteur is intact, and some very talented performers have shown us sides of themselves we've never had the pleasure of viewing before. I left the theater very pleased. 5 of 5 stars.
Related posts: Best the the Summer Wields? (review of Beasts of the Southern Wild), Sept. Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Techs: Part 1, Part 2, Screenplays, Supporting Performers, Best Actor and Actress, Directors, and Picture