Movie Reviews - 2012 postsWednesday October 31, 2012
Movie Review: Cloud Atlas (2012)
Every Hollywood movie believes in true love but only “Cloud Atlas” posits an explanation: reincarnation. We’re simply meeting someone we already knew in a previous life. The movie suggests a continuity from life to life, and an existential moral authority in which justice is meted out in this life or the next.
My thought throughout: Isn’t it pretty to think so?
Admittedly “Cloud Atlas” is ambitious and unconventional in its storytelling. It gives us six stories from six eras, with the same actors playing different roles in different eras. They, it is suggested, are the reincarnated souls. Thus:
- In the Pacific Islands in 1849, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is trying to get home to San Francisco and his wife, Tilda (Doona Bae), but doesn’t know he’s slowly being poisoned by his friend, Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks).
- In 1936, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), leaves his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), to become assistant to one of the world’s great composers, Vyvaan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent), only to have his ideas stolen by the great man.
- In 1973, journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) investigates a nuclear power plant run by Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant), but all of her sources, including an aged Rufus Sixsmith (still D’Arcy) and Isaac Sachs (Hanks), wind up dead. Is she the next target?
- In 2012, a publisher, Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent), owes royalties to a gangster-novelist, Dermot Hoggins (Hanks), so his brother (Grant) agrees to hide him in a hotel; but the place turns out to be an old folks home run military-style.
- In Neo Seoul in 2144, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a replicant waitron, born and bred for the purpose of serving the customer, is helped by a pureblood, Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess), to ascend to greater knowledge and thus transform the world.
- In a post-apocalyptic future, “106 winters after the fall,” a superstitious islander, Zachry (Hanks), aids one of the last remnants of our technologically advanced civilization, Meronym (Berry) up a mountain peak in search of Cloud Atlas, an outpost and communication station, where she can contact humans living in space. For what purpose I never really understood. To make things better, I suppose.
Writer-directors Andy and Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix”), and Tom Tykwer (“Run, Lola, Run”), intercut these stories like an MTV video. They even offer an early, meta explanation for their method. As Cavendish writes his comic tale of escape, he talks up his general distaste for flashbacks and flashforwards but considers them necessary evils. He promises, “There’s a method to this madness.”
I can think of only one flashback in Cavendish’s tale (to his true love, of course), so the line is meant more for us than Cavendish’s imaginary readers. I found it either too cute or unnecessary handholding. I wasn’t confused by the cross-cutting. I was sadly unconfused. I got it all too quickly.
Each era leaves something behind: a story for the next generation. So the goddess worshipped in the far-flung future is Sonmi-451, whose escape was inspired, in part, by an old digital/film version of the memoirs of Cavendish, who publishes, or stupidly rejects (I forget which), a novel based upon the adventures of Luisa Ray, who reads the 1930s love letters between Sixsmith and Frobisher, the latter of whom, while collaborating on his Cloud Atlas Symphony, reads “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.” We are bound to each other by our stories.
But this is the best, most poetic way to describe the movie’s philosophy. It’s what Sonmi-451 says to the unseen masses of her time:
Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future.
Sometimes this future is birthed in another lifetime. It’s karma. Broadbent’s character traps a man in one lifetime only to be trapped himself in another. Hanks’ character is corrupt first-worlder amid the island natives in 1849, then island native in a far-off future dealing with first-worlder Halle Berry (the incorruptible). When Berry and Hanks meet in 1973, he falls for her (easy to do) because he senses he already knows her (though, chronologically, their paths have yet to cross). When Berry and Whishaw, the proprietor of a 1970s record/head shop, listen, entranced, to a very rare 1930s recording of the “Cloud Atlas Symphony,” both feel they’ve heard it before. They have: he as composer, she as wife of corrupt collaborator.
More often, though, the future, and the karma, is birthed within one’s own lifetime. The kindness Ewing shows the escaped slave Autua (David Gyasi) is returned to him when Autua saves him from the machinations of Dr. Henry Goose. The kindness Cavendish and the others show by returning to save Mr. Meeks (Robert Fyfe) is returned to them when Meeks, finding his voice in a pub, rallies football hooligans to save them from Big Nurse (Hugo Weaving). Zachry twice saves Meronym’s life, despite a voodooish demon, Old Georgie (Weaving), whispering in his ear; and in the end, at the last moment, when all hope seems lost, she returns to save him and his daughter from marauding cannibals.
In fact, every story but one (maybe two) has a happy, Hollywood ending. Ewing, saved, returns to San Francisco, stands up to his father-in-law (Weaving), and becomes an abolitionist. Luisa Ray publishes her scoop about oil companies conspiring to create a nuclear disaster. Cavendish escapes the old folks’ home and is reunited with his true love (Susan Sarandon). Zachry and Meronym become husband and wife and perpetuate the species with children and grandchildren, to whom Zachry tells his tales around a campfire.
The two less-than-happy endings? In 2144, Sonmi-451 discovers that replicants, rather than “ascending” to a higher place, are killed, skinned, and served as food to the purebloods. “They feed us to us,” she says, stunned. This echoes similar sentiments in other eras. “The weak are meat and the strong do eat,” says Dr. Goose as he attempts to kill a weakened Ewing. “Soylent Green is people!” Cavendish shouts during his first failed attempt at escape. Plus the cannibals of the post-apocalyptic future. This fate awaits Sonmi-451, too. But first she gets word out to the masses. She changes the world. It would be more poignant, however, if we understood why Hae-Joo Chang saw her as “The One.” What is it with the Wachowskis and “The One” anyway? Can’t they get off that fucking horse? Can’t Hollywood? Can’t … all of us?
The other sad ending is from the 1930s, when Frobisher, the talented gay guy, for no good reason, kills himself. Someone alert Vito Russo.
But each story mostly builds toward happy endings; and the movie leaves us in the far-off future with humanity returned to its natural state: telling stories around campfires.
“Cloud Atlas” is, again, ambitious, and often beautiful. I think of Tykwer’s shots of Luisa Ray going over the bridge and into the water, then ascending. I was rarely bored. The nearly three-hour runtime went by like that. And a lot of the words, which come from David Mitchell’s novel, are just glorious.
But for all its unconventionality, each story, by itself, is utterly conventional, as is the connective tissue between the stories. “Cloud Atlas” takes our most unknowable questions, about life and love, and makes the answers obvious. In this way, it’s like almost every Hollywood movie ever made.
Movie Review: The Five-Year Engagement (2012)
When did I give up on this movie? I guess about halfway in. That scene where Tom Solomon (Jason Segel), who has sacrificed a rising career as a sous chef in San Francisco to follow his fiancée, Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt), to Michigan (where she is a Ph.D. student in social psychology), is babysitting Violet's 3-year-old niece and takes his eye off her for a second to watch a cat video on YouTube. The girl goes missing. She winds up in the kitchen behind Tom’s cross bow. (“Cross bows don’t clean themselves,” he explains to Violet as to why it’s on the kitchen table.) Then the girl shoots Violet in the leg. Then her parents return, and we get anger and recrimination and blame. And a close-up of the wound.
It just seemed a bit much.
By this point we’re seeing how low Tom can sink. In Ann Arbor, instead of running a foodie joint by the bay, he’s making sandwiches in a local deli and hanging with other, neutered faculty husbands like Bill (Chris Parnell), who knits sweaters and hunts deer. The knitting is for something to do. The hunting is, one assumes, to replenish his disappearing manhood. Tom finds himself following suit, first with a rifle and then with a cross bow. He begins to display flowing, Civil-War-era facial hair. He wears the draping sweaters Bill knits. He begins to make mead from honey. He serves his wilderness fare in fur-covered mugs.
The niece is the child of his goofball friend, Alex (Chris Pratt, Scott Hatteberg of “Moneyball”), and her sharp-tongued sister, Suzie (Alison Brie, Pete Campbell’s wife from “Mad Men”), who met at Tom and Violet’s engagement party and then quickly zipped past them in making a life together. She got pregnant, they got married (with a beautiful ceremony), had the kid, then another. When Tom followed Violet to Michigan, Alex, the screw-up, got the job running the clam bar that was meant for Tom.
Violet, meanwhile, is enjoying her work at the University of Michigan, but her fellow grad students, Vaneetha, Ming and Doug (Mindy Kaling, Randall Park and Kevin Hart), are all one-note sitcom characters, while their advisor, Winton Childs (Rhys Ifans), is obviously making a play for Violet. We wait for it to happen. It does. We wait for the eventual breakup. It occurs. We wait through their new, awkward relationships until they get back together and get married. They do. At the end. Two hours into the movie.
Two hours? For a rom-com? A clue right there.
I liked “The Five-Year Engagement” at the beginning. It felt true and slightly original. Segel and Blunt have great chemistry and are generally sweet together. Plus there are great laugh-out-loud lines. When Violet talks about hurrying up the wedding plans, her sister tells her, “Hey, it’s your wedding. You only get a few of these.” When they worry what the relatives will say when they delay the nuptials, Tom declares, “They’ll live.” Cut to: a funeral.
But there’s too much. They keep pushing the envelope unnecessarily. One of Violet’s fellow grad students is obsessed with masturbation; another with blood and chicken feathers. When Tom gets angry at Vi, he winds up with a crazy girl who wants food-fight sex … or something. He leaves that encounter half-naked, winds up sleeping half-naked outside in winter, and loses a toe to frostbite. Funny. When he opens a foodie taco truck back in San Francisco, to raves, the guy waiting in line can’t just tell him how much he likes his tacos; he has to ask him for a hug. Grandparents have to keep dying, her father has to keep marrying younger Asian women, his mother has to talk to him about her vaginal reconstruction surgery. After a while, it feels like everyone is doing standup rather than serving the needs of the story.
Some envelopes aren’t meant to be pushed. Some bits need a little less commitment.
Movie Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is a surprisingly good film about the first awkward steps of high school and the even more first awkward steps of love. I liked it, and was moved, even though I’m about to turn 50. I felt long-ago pangs and longings. I felt this despite being painfully aware of the film’s central lie: that the perks of being a wallflower generally don’t include Emma Watson.
Off the wall
Charlie (“Percy Jackson”’s Logan Lerman) is about to start his freshman year of high school, friendless, in a suburb of Pittsburgh in the mid-1980s. He’s a shy kid but with an inner determination. He’s also known tragedy. His best friend killed himself the previous spring. His favorite aunt, Helen (Melanie Lynskey), died when he was young. He keeps flashing back to her death. A car accident? A suicide? He’s not quite right in the head. Incidents are alluded to. He’s aware that his parents (Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh) are worried he’ll “get bad again.”
High school is certainly the place to get bad again. We all know the casual cruelty there. Despite a good pedigree, including a way-too-hot older sister, Candace (Nina Dobrev), and a handsome older brother, who now plays college football (Zane Holtz), he sits alone at lunch. In English class, a girl makes offhand, nasty remarks. Moments after Charlie bonds with his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), a senior grabs his book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and tears the cover in half with a “Whaddaya gonna do about it?” look on his face.
In shop class Charlie quietly admires the outgoing Patrick (Ezra Miller, from “We Need to Talk About Kevin”), an obviously gay guy who obviously doesn’t give a fuck. At the high school football game, Charlie works up the courage to sit next to Patrick, who, oddly, considering his rebel status, is cheering boisterously for the home team. Patrick’s step-sister, Sam (Emma Watson), then stops by. Since she looks like Emma Watson, Charlie’s dazzled. There’s a moment, a kind of camera wobble, that indicates a sudden shift in Charlie’s life, that love-at-first-sightedness, even as what she’s talking about isn’t exactly romantic:
Sam: Could anything be more disgusting than the bathrooms here?
Patrick: Yeah, it’s called the men’s room.
There are several good—but not too good—lines like this. Sam says she isn’t a bulimic but a bulimicist. When Charlie tells the two he wants to be a writer but doesn’t know what to write about, Sam suggests he write about them. “Call it ‘Slut and the Falcon,’” Patrick adds. “Make us solve crimes!”
Is Charlie really a wallflower? He introduces himself to Patrick, after all. And at the Homecoming dance he forces himself off the wall and onto the floor, where Patrick and Sam are dancing boisterously to Dexys Midnight Runners’ “Come on Eileen.” He’s welcomed there. Joyously. It’s a joyous moment.
How little we know
I graduated from high school five years before the kids in this movie, 1981 versus 1986, a lifetime in cultural terms, but I kept feeling odd moments of resonance. Sam and Patrick do this counter-rotational dance that reminded me of a dance two Chinese girls did to R.E.M.’s “End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” at a Taipei club in 1987. Charlie winds up dating the wrong girl in his group of misfits, the outgoing, smart, vaguely punkish, Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), just as I did in my group. He has a bedroom moment with the right girl, Sam, that is less about sex and more about the held breath of first love, and then its release. I once tried to write a novel centering on such a moment.
I kept having to remind myself how little I knew, how little we all know, in high school. Mr. Anderson gives Charlie extra books to read, including “The Great Gatsby” and “The Catcher in the Rye.” Really? I thought. Charlie doesn’t know these books already? Then I added up. I didn’t read Salinger until 10th grade. I didn’t read “Gatsby” until college. Sam likes to stand in the back of Patrick’s pick-up truck with her arms spread wide as he speeds in the tunnels and over the bridges of Pittsburgh, and we, and Charlie, watch her do this to one song, which they then spend the rest of the year, and movie, trying to find. They don’t recognize the singer, David Bowie, or the song, “Heroes.” Really? I thought. Bowie? They don’t know Bowie? That one definitely seems wrong.
But there are so many little things the movie does right. Mr. Anderson never becomes more than Mr. Anderson: a good teacher who gives out good books and good advice. At the end of the school year, Charlie hugs him and he responds with a tentative, one-armed back-pat, as if he’s wary of the administrative lines being crossed. Earlier, he gives Charlie the line Charlie repeats back to Sam: “We accept the love we think we deserve.” That’s why Candace accepts her jerkoff boyfriend (until she doesn’t), and Sam accepts hers (until she doesn’t), and Charlie accepts Mary Elizabeth (until their relationship, and his relationship with everyone else in the group, implodes). And that’s partly why it takes so long for Sam and Charlie to get together. What he feels for her, and what she seems to feel for him, is too meaningful. So it waits until she’s about to go off to college and there’s no more room for waiting. That’s generally when we find the courage. When there’s room for nothing else.
Charlie is an interesting character for being so passive. He’s a little more messed-in-the-head than we realize. He’s not just shy; it’s as if he’s carefully walking a very narrow path because he doesn’t like what he sees on either side. He is, in E.L. Doctorow’s phrase, a small criminal of perception. “There’s so much pain,” he says near the end. “And I don’t know how not to notice it.”
These are the little things the movie does right. But there are three big lies that go with this smaller, truer story.
The first lie is the aforementioned wallflower perks that include Emma Watson.
The second lie is how Charlie returns to his group’s good graces after his messy break-up with Mary Elizabeth. Patrick has secretly been dating a football player, Brad (Johnny Simmons), but they’re found by the Brad’s father, who beats the boy. At school, to protect himself, Brad becomes even more homophobic, and, at one point, calls Patrick “faggot,” then does nothing when his fellow football players begin to beat up Patrick. But Charlie does something. He stands, moves forward ... and the screen goes black. The next images we see are football players beaten on the ground, and Charlie, dazed, staring at his clenched fists, which are bruised and bloody. He did all that. Without knowing he did it. Skinny freshman Charlie against three senior football players. It’s a great wish-fulfillment fantasy, finding your inner Hulk, but it’s just that.
The final big lie is found in the final lines of the movie—and in its tagline.
Before the next school year starts, before Sam returns to U Penn and Patrick goes off to Seattle (to participate, it’s implied, in the nascent grunge scene), the three party one last time. Charlie has finally found that Bowie song for Sam, “Heroes,” and they play it again in the tunnel leading to the bridges over the three rivers of Pittsburgh; but this time it’s Charlie who stands in the back of the truck and spreads his arms wide to take it all in. Throughout the movie he’s been narrating to us, in the form of writing a letter to a friend named “Friend.” (Chbosky’s novel, upon which Chbosky’s movie is based, is epistolary.) And of the moment in the back of the truck, he tells us, “I am here and I am looking at her and she is so beautiful.” Nice, I thought. Great last lines, I thought. But those aren’t the last lines. The pickup truck begins to move away from the camera and toward the lights of the big city and Charlie adds: “And in this moment, we are infinite.”
In the audience, I grimaced. “And in the next moment,” I thought, “You are nearly 50.”
Movie Review: Argo (2012)
Ben Affleck’s “Argo” is the type of movie Hollywood never makes any more: a thriller for adults, steeped in history and humor. The tension at the end is so heightened I almost got a headache. But it’s what they do at the beginning that is particularly noteworthy.
“Argo” is about a true-to-life, supersecret CIA mission, declassified in 1997, in which a lone operative, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), flies to Iran in January 1980, in the midst of the hostage crisis, to rescue six American foreign service officers who have taken refuge in the Canadian embassy.
And how does the movie begin? With context.
Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio, and Warner Bros., have the audacity to show us, in storyboard fashion, a short history of Iran and its shahs, and of the election in 1950 of Mohammad Mosaddegh, an author and lawyer, who nationalized British and U.S. petroleum in his country, and who was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by MI6 and the CIA three years later. His replacement was Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whom we all knew as the Shah of Iran, whose lifestyle was profligate, whose police force was ruthless, and who attempted to westernize his country, angering Islamic clerics. This helped lead to his own coup d’etat in 1979, which brought to power the Ayatollah Khomeini. Later that year, Iranian students overwhelmed the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Thus began, in a sense, our modern age.
The crowd looks a little bigger today
“Argo” begins on that day, Nov. 4, 1979, with demonstrations outside the U.S. embassy, and embassy officials inside saying things like, “The crowd looks a little bigger today, doesn’t it?” Then one Iranian jumps the wall. Another. A stream. Metal cutters arrive to cut the chains of the gate and the students flood in. They pound on the doors of the embassy. They break windows.
There’s an obvious innocence to the people inside. They don’t know that history is being made. They don’t know the modern age is about to begin. So while some officials shred documents, and a security officer, aware of the lessons of My Lai and Kent State, warns his subordinates not to fire at anyone in the crowd, and then blunders outside thinking he can actually calm the crowd, six officials, helping Iranians obtain U.S. visas, debate whether or not to leave. One of the six finally says, “If we need to go, we need to go now,” and they exit the building with the visa-seeking Iranians, then find themselves on the streets in a hostile country. When Washington D.C. gets the news about the embassy takeover, they, too, don’t know the modern age is about to begin. In a bout of early optimism, one official says of the Iranian president, “Bani Sadr says it’ll be over in 24 hours.”
Then the screen goes black. Then these words appear: 69 days later.
The best bad idea
At this point we’re introduced to Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), calm in demeanor, prone to drink, and with stylized hair and beard similar to Michael Douglas in “The China Syndrome.” In a motel room full of Chinese takeout boxes and crushed Miller High-Life cans, with the TV on, he’s sleeping it off, fully clothed. In a bad leisure suit. It’s the 1970s.
When Mendez arrives at a meeting at Langley, he finds out about the six, and the various idiot schemes being propagated by officials. No. 1? Airlift in bicycles and have the six bike the 300 miles to the Turkish border. “Or you could just send in training wheels and meet them at the border with Gatorade,” Mendez responds.
It’s an OK line but give Affleck credit. He gives most of the best lines to his stellar supporting cast. At one point Mendez’s CIA superior, Jack O’Connell (Bryan Cranston), says, “Carter’s shitting enough bricks to build the pyramids.” When he pitches Mendez’s movie scheme to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance (Bob Gunton, temporarily freed from warden duty), Vance’s contemporary, played by Philip Baker Hall, asks, “You don’t have a better bad idea than this?” and O’Connell responds, with deference, “This is the best bad idea we have. Sir.” There’s something very American about that. We are a country made up of best bad ideas.
Mendez then contacts a friend, legendary Hollywood makeup man John Chambers (John Goodman), who guides Mendez through the Hollywood scene and who finds him a producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), who declares, as they go through scripts, “If I’m going to make a fake movie I want it to be a fake hit.” They find one: “Argo,” a sci-fi flick. He and Chambers begin a running gag about the title: “Argo fuck yourself.” If there’s any justice, you’ll be hearing that a lot this fall.
But even in Hollywood we get serious moments. Mendez is separated from his wife and kid, and, in a moment of camaraderie, he asks Siegel about his family. Siegel says he has two grown daughters whom he sees once a year. He says, with no self-pity, “I was a terrible father.” He gives this excuse without excusing himself. “It’s a bullshit business. You come home to your wife and kids, you can’t wipe it off.” Great line. Great line reading. You don’t have to live in Hollywood to identify.
So the plan is for Mendez to travel to Iran as a Hollywood producer, scouting exotic locations (sand dunes, etc.) for a post-“Star Wars” sci-fi flick. There are write-ups in the trades, storyboards created, publicity, a meeting with potential investors at the Beverly Hilton. In the distance, the Hollywood sign is crumbling.
At the Canadian embassy in Iran, Mendez is greeted less as rescuer than as the man who will get them all killed. But authorities are closing in. Iranian officials already know six embassy officials are missing. They’re piecing together shredded documents, like pieces from a jigsaw puzzle, that will reveal names and faces. They don’t know it but they need to get out now.
Is the tension at the end too much? Too heightened? Too unreal? At the airport, an angry bearded official doesn’t believe them and checks out their story, as, back at the U.S. embassy, the face of one of the six is pieced together and tied to a clandestine shot of “the movie crew” going through Tehran’s market. Officials then storm the Canadian embassy, phone calls are made, and police cars and jeeps roar down the runway after the Swiss Air jet about to take off with our heroes. It’s all very Spielbergian.
Why the terrorists won
It’s also effective and fascinating and witty and historically important. It’s a feel-good story about a feel-bad time. I remember those times. I was in high school. The sense of impotence the country felt because of the hostage crisis led directly to the election of Ronald Reagan and his own-brand of Hollywoodish feel-good fantasies. We’ve been doubling down on those fantasies ever since. In this way the terrorists won.
How about Ben Affleck? After “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” he’s now 3 for 3. “Argo” is a fun movie for smart people. Argo fucking see it already.
Movie Review: The Master (2012)
Five years ago I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” and was disappointed. Last week, I watched it again and was stunned by how good it was. This week I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” and was disappointed. Will I be stunned by how good it is if I see it again in five years? Or will I see it the way I saw it this week: a powerfully directed film whose story doesn’t resonate?
What’s your name?
Both movies focus on a clash between two men, one of whom is religious or quasi-religious, none of whom is likeable. The battle in “Blood” is between capitalist forces, represented by oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis), and spiritual forces, represented by preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), and it’s never much of a battle. Plainview has too much will; he’s the triumph and tragedy of it. He dominates the movie and dominates Eli. By the end, the masks both men wear—Plainview pretends to care about community but despises humanity; Eli is a weak-willed charlatan—have fallen to the point where Eli admits to living in a Godless universe while Plainview commits murder (again) without repentance. Thus capitalism crushes us all. With a bowling pin.
In “The Master,” the clash is between Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a Navy serviceman broken by World War II, and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an L. Ron Hubbardish figure whose cult Freddie wanders into five years after the war. What’s their clash? Initially, it’s drawing out Freddie. It’s understanding him and his problems. There’s a great scene where Dodd, with his repetitive methods (“What’s your name?”; “What’s your name?”; “What’s your name?”), finally gets Freddie to open up. And he does. Freddie reveals himself. He says his father’s dead from drink and his mother’s in an asylum and he had sex with a family member, his aunt, three times, and he left behind a girl in Boston whom he never went to see after the war and he doesn’t know why. It’s an exhilarating scene, for us and for him. We all wear masks; we are all trapped by our past. Saying the truth can momentarily set us free.
But revelation for Freddie does not lead to rehabilitation; his problems persist. He remains childishly obsessed with sex. He remains violent. He continues to drink his awful, war-era drinks of Lysol and gasoline and paint thinner. One such drink kills an old Filipino man in Salinas. That’s what Freddie’s running from when he stows away aboard the Alethia (“truth”; “disclosure”), Dodd’s ship bound from San Francisco, through the canal, and to New York City. But it’s not Dodd’s ship.
Peace is here
“The Master” opens to a soundtrack full of discordant music from Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood. We’re on a Pacific island beach waiting out the end of the war, and Freddie, one Navy man of many, is already isolated from the rest. He’s cutting coconuts while the other men wrestle on the beach. They make a sand woman on the beach, hair flowing, legs open, and Freddie gets on top and starts pumping away. It’s funny for a second, then gets embarrassing fast. Freddie gets too into it. There’s too much need there. When we hear the Japanese surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, Freddie and other men are aboard their ship searching for, I believe, gasoline, from the ship’s missiles. To drink. “Peace is here,” the announcer intones. You look at Freddie and think: No, it’s not.
Freddie’s early, peaceless, post-war drifting is fascinating. A military shrink, smoking away, gives him a Rorschach test, telling him there are no right or wrong answers. Freddie’s first three responses to the ink blots are thus: 1) a pussy; 2) a cock inside a pussy; 3) a cock upside down. The psychiatrist sighs. Apparently there are right and wrong answers.
In a perfectly rendered, late 1940s department store, Freddie becomes a portrait photographer. America has just gone through a global depression and a world war and everyone wants to put all that shit behind them and display its best face to the world (“Get thee behind me, Satan” sings Ella Fitzgerald on the soundtrack). That face turns out to be a false face. It’s cute kids and young couples and there’s strain in every smile. Freddie, a young man, takes their pictures, but he already looks like an old man. Phoenix’s performance is amazing and Oscar-worthy. It’s like they took him, broke him in half, and put him back the wrong way. He’s hunched and painfully thin. He keeps his arms akimbo like a chicken, like he’s holding up his back. The post-war male sex symbols, Brando and James Dean and Elvis, were slouched men with curled lips and unruly hair slicked back, and Freddie has elements of each of these but there’s nothing sexy about him at all. He’s the anti-sex symbol. He drains sex from any situation. Martha the salesgirl (Amy Ferguson), whose job it is to walk the floor displaying dresses for sale, displays more to Freddie in a back room, and he pokes at her nipples like a 4-year-old, and pouts when she puts them away. He’s old in appearance and adolescent in his prurience, and he loses his job when he starts a fight with a fat man who’s getting his picture taken for his wife. He’s FUBAR.
This doesn’t change aboard the Alethia. He affects normality among the youngish men and women untouched by war (it’s 1950 now) but he has no place. There’s a hilarious moment when, surrounded by women listening to a taped recording of Dodd’s book, “The Cause,” in which Dodd intones, again and again, that Man is not an animal, that we are not part of the animal kingdom, that we are not ruled by our emotions, Freddie makes eyes at all of the women, then writes one of them a note: “Do you want to fuck?”
He remains violent but now he’s violent for The Cause. During the course of the movie he attacks anyone who attacks or doubts Dodd, including a New York party guest, John More (Christopher Evan Welch), surely named after St. Thomas; Dodd’s son, Val (Jesse Plemons), who tells Freddie, “He’s making it up as he goes.”; the Philadelphia police, who come to arrest Dodd; and Bill William (Kevin J. O’Connor), an acolyte who feels Dodd’s second book is a failure and could’ve been edited down to a three-page pamphlet.
“Peace is here”: Freddie Quell celebrates the end of WWII
So what is The Cause? Anderson keeps it sketchy. Dodd claims, among other things, that our problems in this life are caused by unresolved issues in previous lives. Apparently our previous lives go back thousands or trillions of years. Yes, trillions with a “t,” sir, Dodd says to More at an upper east side New York coming-out party. More says that some of Dodd’s methods sound like hypnosis, to which Dodd responds that it’s de-hypnosis. He says that man is asleep. It’s a good line. But he is increasingly agitated at being questioned. More reminds him that “Good science, by definition, allows for more than one opinion. Otherwise, you merely have the will of one man, which is the basis of cult.” Dodd’s response begins well but he winds up ruled by emotions: “If you already know the answer to your questions, why ask them—PIG FUCK!” Cut to: our group, in the elevator, on the way down.
If Freddie is a wrecked man, prone to bursts of sex and violence, Dodd is an ebullient man who cannot abide dissent. Others call him ‘The Master’ but he lives in a post-World War II democracy that has just swept away the would-be masters of the world. Dissent lives. Dodd is the master of a small domain forced to live in a larger one, and he and his group, like all beginning religions, are forced to wander in the wilderness: from San Francisco to New York to Philadelphia to Phoenix, where The Cause, he hopes, will be reborn. But it’s a downward trajectory. All the while, thanks to Dodd’s outbursts, they’re losing adherents.
Except it can’t be Dodd’s fault, can it? He’s the Master, isn’t he? So they look for someone else to blame. And there’s Freddie. Erratic, chicken-winged Freddie. In an inner-circle, dinner-table pow-wow after Dodd returns from a Philadelphia lock-up, Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), she of the sweet face and bitter, iron will, counsels excommunicating him. The inner circle accuses Freddie of being what he is (erratic) and what he isn’t (a spy). Dodd’s daughter from a previous marriage, Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), accuses Freddie of desiring her sexually, when, we see, she made the pass at him. Once more, we accuse others of our own crimes. World without end.
But Freddie isn’t tossed out of The Cause; he leaves. He flees. In Phoenix, Dodd’s second book, “The Split Sabre,” is unveiled, to disappointment among adherents, including Bill William, whom Freddie pummels, and Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern), whose largesse they relied upon in Philadelphia. She comes to Dodd with a great, strained smile on her face, and asks about page 13, where the language for “the processing”—the near-hypnotic state Dodd puts adherents under—has been changed from “Can you recall...[past lives]” to “Can you imagine...[past lives].” She feels this is muting the Master’s message. The Master explains, vaguely, and we get this exchange:
Helen: But if the new—
Dodd: WHAT DO YOU WANT!?!
The outburst shocks her; then she gives him the dirtiest of looks. Scales have fallen, as they have fallen from others’ eyes. It’s shortly after this, riding motorcycles in the desert, that Freddie leaves the group.
Members of “The Cause” on the elevator down. Like Lonesome Rhodes before them.
Maybe in the next life
Should the movie have ended there? I wonder. Instead, Anderson shows us Freddie, still full of tics and mannerisms and small lies, finally returning to the girl in Lynn, Mass., but the girl, Doris, doesn’t live there anymore. Her Irish mother tells Freddie she’s married, to Jim Day, and now lives in Alabama. We get a great line from Anderson, and a great line reading from Phoenix: “Jim Day, Jim Day, that Jim Day?” Freddie suddenly realizes the girl of his dreams is now named Doris Day, like the movie star in Hollywood’s dream factory, and he chuckles over this. In the very next shot he’s asleep in a cinema balcony while a “Casper the Friendly Ghost” cartoon plays; and he dreams of getting a phone call from Dodd inviting him to England. As dreams go, it turns out to be fairly accurate.
Oddly, The Cause, which seemed in its death rattle in Arizona, is now flourishing. It’s institutionalized. It resides in a big schoolhouse, and Dodd reigns from behind a grand desk in a gigantic room with 50-foot ceilings, and we get our final confrontation between our two protagonists, just as we got our final confrontation between Plainview and Sunday in the bowling alley in “Blood.” This one is less bloody. The brutality is in the words:
Dodd: If you leave here I don’t ever want to see you again... Or you can stay.
Freddie (grins): Maybe in the next life.
Dodd (serious): If we meet again in the next life, you will be my sworn enemy and I will show you no mercy.
There’s a kind of knowing gentleness, almost grace, to the way Freddie says his “next life” comment. He doesn’t believe in it but he’s throwing it out as a gift to Dodd, who throws it back in Freddie’s face. The people of The Cause, pampered and puffy and immaculate, need to look to previous lives for answers to their problems. Freddie, rail-thin Freddie, doesn’t. He’s seen the horrors in this one. His problems have resulted from this one. He knows.
Then we see him walking down an English path. We see him hook up with an English girl. He uses some of the lines Dodd used on him back on the Alethia. We get a flashback to his sand woman in the Pacific, and we see the progress he’s made, from sand woman to real woman, and the movie ends and the lights go up.
And we go: “Huh.”
Lancaster Dodd: pampered, puffy, immaculate.
Slow boat to China
What’s the movement in the movie? Freddie goes from being massively fucked up to being slightly fucked up, while the cult he joins seems on a slow, downward trajectory—rootless and wandering and full of sophomore slumps—until it leaps, off-screen, into an established institution in England. How did that happen? How did Dodd make that happen? We last see him losing disciples in the desert and then suddenly he’s a massive success in England. Why? And why England? Isn’t this the more interesting story? How come it doesn’t interest P.T. Anderson?
There’s a good quote from Norman Mailer on the nature of art:
Art obviously depends upon incomplete communication. A work which is altogether explicit is not art, the audience cannot respond with their own creative act of the imagination, that small leap of the faculties which leaves one an increment more exceptional than when one began.
Unfortunately, Anderson’s communication is too incomplete. We leave with nothing but questions:
- After the Dodds speak of excommunicating Freddie because he’s beyond help, they force him to walk between a wall and a window for an unspecified amount of time. Is this to a) drive him out; b) drive him crazy; c) control him; or d) something else?
- In Philadelphia, Dodd sings his “a roving” song, and suddenly all of the women in the room are naked. I assume the nakedness is in Freddie’s head. But was Elizabeth Dodd’s pass at him also in his head? If it wasn’t, why did she do it? To get him to stay? To repay him for attacking More? Are there elements of Sam Peckinpah there?
- Does The Cause do Freddie good? Does he need it? Does it help?
- What does the accuracy of Freddie’s movie-theater dream about Dodd’s phone call say about our unconscious lives? Or what does it say about what P.T. Anderson thinks of our unconscious lives?
- Is Lancaster Dodd a closeted homosexual?
This last would explain why Dodd keeps Freddie and his erratic, animal nature around. It would help explain several scenes.
During the naked “a roving” scene, Peggy, pregnant and naked and in the background, stares at Freddie with something like concern in her eyes. Does she see his lust? Is that it? And does she assume the lust is for Dodd, who’s center-stage? And does she already suspect that Dodd reciprocates? Because in the very next scene, Dodd is in the middle of his nighttime ablutions, brushing his teeth, when Peggy comes over and jacks him off, telling he can do whatever he wants with whomever he wants just so she doesn’t hear about it. Initially I assumed she was referring to the women in the cult. But Freddie is a more likely culprit.
Then in the final scene Dodd suddenly sings to Freddie, and Freddie sheds a tear. This is what he sings:
I'd like to get you
On a slow boat to China
All to myself alone
Is this Dodd’s moment of revelation? Or does he never truly reveal himself the way that Freddie does, or the way that Plainview did? You could argue that Anderson doesn’t show us Dodd’s true nature because that is the basis of cult: never to truly reveal yourself. Or you could argue that that is the basis of Paul Thomas Anderson and his movies.
“The Master” is deeply felt and rendered, beautifully shot and art-directed, and acted by artists and professionals. It’s also a failure in terms of story. But I would still rather watch it again than almost any movie released this year.
Get thee behind me, Satan: Our strained, post-war innocence.