Monday, December 1, 2014

The Master (2012) and the haunted human face

How much of The Master--Paul Thomas Anderson's movie about an alcoholic seaman and the charismatic master of a Scientology-like cult--is made up of close-ups on faces?

There's a lot of very intense dialogue scenes that are all shot-reverse shot, either over the shoulder or from the POV of the interlocutors (so that, for instance, we're not looking over Joaquin's shoulder at Amy Adams, but staring directly at her, as he would be).

Even when we're not technically in a close-up, many of the shots are focused on faces, with settings and objects fuzzing out into the background. (The ur-shot of this film might be the sort of department store portrait photography that Joaquin's character falls into after the war: faces on a blank screen.)

It is, in a way, indicative of the type of movie this is, almost like a Philip Roth story: not a lot of incident, but a lot of character.

And there is a lot of character in these actors and their faces. (Another object lesson of the importance of casting.) Joaquin, with his high-waisted pants (the importance of costume!), moves almost as if he's been broken in half; and with his scarred lip, his face really is broken in half, with half of it smiling and laughing, never quite touching the other half. (The converse to the half is the double and there's certainly something double here between the Master and the Margarita-drinker. Also, for doubles/repeats, check out the Master's real name: Lancaster Dodd. So many ds, so many consonant/vowel/consonant collections!)

It's the kind of film that could survive a term paper. And it is enjoyable in its own way. (That way being "for those who like stories where not much happens.") But I'm not entirely surprised that it didn't do so well at the box office. Staring at Joaquin Phoenix's twisted face for two hours is not everyone's idea of fun.

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