In 2012, a half dozen or more filmmakers fell into the trap set by expectations. For Spielberg, Lincoln lacked the groundbreaking scares of Jaws, the universality of ET, and the heartbreaking humanity of Schindler’s List; for Tarantino, Django Unchained lacked the energy and originality of Reservoir Dogs and the structural brilliance of Pulp Fiction; for Audiard, Rust and Bone lacked the efficient brutality of A Prophet and settled for emotional manipulation; and the list goes on.
Three artists managed to break this trend. The first was David O Russell, who rose from mediocrity to solidity with Silver Linings Playbook. The second was Michael Haneke. While Caché and The White Ribbon had more scenes of stunning achievement than most films have in their entirety, Amour is his most faultless work yet. It makes nary a misstep: the acting is top-notch, the direction dazzling, the screenplay profound and devastating in its simplicity. The ability to remember Trintignant and Riva as young people half a century ago provides added depth and realism to a story that reflects a most disturbing truth: the inevitability of death.
The more interesting story relating to a filmmaker’s previous work is in a discussion of Paul Thomas Anderson. The Master is not easily defined as great cinema. The first 18 minutes of silence in There Will Be Blood are already infamous; the oil fire scene is one of the greatest action setpieces in the last decade; and the bowling alley finale is rightly considered worthy to be compared to the climaxes in The Godfather, Chinatown, and Taxi Driver – perhaps a trilogy of the greatest films made, certainly the three greatest films of the 1970s.
And Master is not Blood. There is not a single moment of sheer exuberance that matches “I drink your milkshake!” Yet what does Master lack? It has some of the best performances of the year, the best cinematography of the year, one of the best scores of the year. Its filmmaking is above reproach. The answer is complexity.
Blood is riveting; Master is confounding. Blood is stimulating; Master is maddening. And it happens to be bleaker, messier, and more perplexing than a film that started with a man in a hole and ended with a man with a hole in his head. There Will Be Blood had clarity: Daniel Plainview was early capitalism; Eli Sunday was early religion. Their names even spelled it out. Their characters were knowable; we saw a clear conflagration when their characters conflicted. Daniel was a selfish bastard, remained a selfish bastard, and succeeded in glorious fashion in his aggressive selfishness. We expected violent ends: the title even spelled it out.
Master has two characters seemingly similarly dichotomous, except the movie never bears that out. We are introduced to an extremely malleable, shattered war veteran with severe PTSD and sexual obsessions. Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is unpredictable, angry, and uncontrollable, and given Anderson’s fixation on father-son relationships, we expect his polar opposite. We meet him in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd. The Cause is, after all, about the ability to suppress negative emotions, and Dodd is in perfect control, except when he isn’t.
In a brilliant use of compositional contradiction, Anderson holds the camera still while Freddie destroys his cell, banging his head against the wall and smashing his toilet to pieces while Dodd leans on the edge of his bunk, then quietly uses the toilet. But Dodd has scenes of vicious emotionalism: before Freddie attacks the man questioning the movement, Dodd has already called him a “pig f***.” When Freddie starts screaming at Dodd in his cell, Dodd reaches the same level of intensity.
The more fascinating contradiction occurs in the film’s upsetting of expectations in terms of the attraction dynamic between the characters. Quell is broken and confused; we reason that he needs someone as self-assured and manipulative as Dodd to usher him into a healthy state of balance. Dodd seems to need no one; he pushes his wife, played by a surprisingly astounding Amy Adams, his son, and his devoted followers away, and he exudes independence. Yet Dodd is the one who ends up chasing Quell. Quell is always looking for a way out; Dodd is always defending him. Quell drives off on a motorcycle; Dodd tracks him down. Quell’s eventual rejection of Dodd is so potent that he promises that if they meet in the next life, they will be “sworn enemies.”
Not only do my top two films of 2012 feature the best performances of the year, but both end on ambiguous notes, with quiet finales that almost disappear. It is as if one is walking through mist, versus closing a book forcefully. In Amour, a film about an elderly woman dying, we would expect the end to be the death of the elderly woman; in fact, that is the beginning. The end focuses on her daughter, who is left to let go and to move on. It seems hopeful, but it is tragically immobilizing. After a chaotic, genre-mashing head trip through the world of movies, Holy Motors ends with limos speaking to each other in whispered tones. Neither of these is explosive or bombastic, but both are some of the best endings I’ve seen on screen in years.
The Master could have ended a number of ways. We figured it would end with Freddie; it is his story, similar to Daniel in Blood. When Daniel shouts “I’m finished,” the end card is displayed. Quell is lying in the sand, next to a sand sculpture of a naked women, ambiguously but seemingly representing an eternity of sexual obsession (an ever-present theme in the film). Daniel beats his rival to death with a bowling pin, screaming and hobbling. Quell is treated to a rather moving rendition of “Slow Boat to China,” sheds a single tear, then walks out without words.
The Master is also Anderson’s most uncomfortable film since Boogie Nights: he has never shied away from nudity, but Quell’s vivid imagination treats audiences to a 2-minute showstopper in which he has undressed every woman in the room, old and young alike. It is infuriating, but integral to understanding the depths of his disorder/identity crisis/character.
The Master is a haunting, troubling, bizarre combination of glances, glimpses, and echoes. The processing scene is unlike anything seen in 2012. Baffling, shocking, disturbing, unsettling, and less than satisfying, at least after two viewings, the film is a denial of conventional catharsis. I walked out of Blood calling it a masterpiece and begging people to see it. I walked out of Master avoiding the subject with anyone who asked. It will provoke debate. Where its place lies on the spectrum of Anderson superstardom, only time will tell.