March 08, 2013

The Master

I saw the Master a couple of weeks ago and tried to review it then but couldn't find the words. I'm not sure I can find them now. I was deeply impressed by the film. Images from it keep returning to me during the day and the night. They are not pleasant images. The Master was not a pleasant film. They are not scary either. They neither terrify nor appall. There is no hideous injustice in the film. There is nothing that cries out to the viewer as a deed that must be avenged. Rather the sense I've got- the enduring sense I've got- is of a very strange world. The world of the Master- the world of religious indoctrination- is weird. It could turn unpleasant very easily and there are plenty of hints in the film to suggest how that might happen. It could turn unreasonable. Ultimately though in this film it is not unpleasant- it is just strange.

The Master is a film about a science fiction writer in the states who founds a religious cult. That's what the publicity rightly says. Its also a film about a soldier returning post World War Two to find his place in society. It is also a film about how men sublimate the desire for sex into religion. It also might be a film about how followers can become even more zealous than their religious masters. I think though more than anything its a film about the 1950s in America. There is something in it that reminds me of Pleasantville- the film in which two modern teenage kids- Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire- find themselves in the midst of a Happy Days like sitcom and proceed to wreak sexual and psychological havoc. It reminded me of Pleasantville because of the same sense of restraint and violence.

The Master is about a man who returns from war, damaged. He returns to a world in which all he basically wants is sex. Joaquin Phoenix's character is not very pleasant: he is positively unpleasant. He'll sleep with anything- even piled sand on a beach and kill for kicks. What restrains him is the fact that he finds religion. Under the tutelage of the Master, he sublimates his violence and his sexual anger into the practice of religious dogma, the dance of cultic movement. Within the group, he is seen as dangerous- the Master's daughter wants to sleep with him, the Master's wife wants him expelled and in a curious way, both are sensing the same thing: he represents the possibility of change and of disruption, of violence. The Master feels that the real test of his repressive system is whether it can cope with this ultimate explosion of the human unconsciousness- in a sense the film deals with the fundemental question of the fifties, how does one repress the memory of war and the difficulty of desire?

Perhaps that's why my favourite character in the whole film is neither of the male protagonists but Amy Adams's wife of the Master. It is because she incarnates the double sense of the film- this masterpiece of repression and desire. She will permit her husband to have affairs, to do anything, so long as the religious movement survives- and she will turn on anyone who in any way damages that survival. Its a fantastic piece of acting- never has a fanatic been brought to screen with such tender ferociousness. Amy Adams both smiles tenderly and stabs at the same time. Its a terribly horrifying display of what repression is. I was wrong the Master is terrifying: its all in Adams's smile.