Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Master - film review


So here’s a film review for a change, having seen The Master.

I don’t do many film reviews, mostly because there’s little reason to do so given the relatively small number of films that command our attention in comparison to books. Plus, books are more fun to review because they elicit wildly different subjective experiences, and monopolize a greater chunk of our time, per unit, in consumption.

I won’t bother describing the plot of The Master in any great detail. Suffice to write that a man leaves WWII an alcoholic and drifts a while before being taken in by the charismatic leader of a movement called The Cause.

Now, this is interesting, because a) the film is set in the 1950’s, and any movement called The Cause has manifestly not survived to today, so we watch the main character’s rapt involvement in The Cause with the constant apprehension that he is being had, and b) the technique of regression hypnosis that members of The Cause use to enable people to connect to past lives. We’ve seen it before. We think we know where this is headed. Except we don’t.

The Master subverts expectation at every possible turn. And as it does so, we, ok I, as viewer am reminded that, guru or no guru, sect or legitimate organization, helpful movement or large-scale fraud, these distinctions are interpretive and distort any image we may have of the internal workings of a closed society. And as the film developed, I realized that Paul Thomas Anderson, the director, had made a potent and clever choice: he wasn’t going to answer the obvious question of The Cause’s legitimacy.

And, making that choice, he took the film off the rails of a predetermined narrative. The rest is just humans doing as humans do, in the large range of personalities that thrive in such an environment.

There is a wife to The Cause’s head. You are confounded if you expect the self-erased, diffident, preening woman-child. We are presented here with a true queen, just a step back from the position of power and commanding it as much as he, albeit from the vantage of an ostensibly supportive role.

There are children, a son and a daughter, privy to the inner workings of the organization but also assertively developed individuals whose presence in The Cause is not predetermined nor cordoned off.

And of course there is the latest comer, the main character, struggling with himself, struggling with his past and the ghost of a woman he has loved and left for reasons that he himself cannot explain, and whose presence in The Cause is as much a surprise to himself as it is to us, ok me, the viewer. Because, of course, he is our proxy, he is us investigating himself through the lens of the organization, sincerely curious as to whether it is indeed possible that he can be cured of his internal strife through some revealed truth.

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