Phoenix’s mas­ter­ful pos­tur­ing

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - URBANJUNGLE -

THE gen­eral crit­i­cal con­sen­sus on The Mas­ter, which opens this week­end in Win­nipeg, is that it’s very, very good. There’s some di­ver­gence, though, about the film’s mean­ing. Some crit­ics are call­ing it a “med­i­ta­tion on” this or that idea, of­ten a sign that they’re floun­der­ing.

Paul Thomas An­der­son’s ex­quis­ite, enig­matic, ex­po­si­tion-free film could be about the in­built im­moral­ity of power, or the im­per­fectabil­ity of hu­mankind, or fathers and sons, or men with­out women, or the root­less, rest­less alien­ation un­der­ly­ing the post­war Amer­ica dream. You could also say that The Mas­ter is about Scien­tol­ogy, which is true but in­trigu­ingly be­side the point.

For me, the film is about all of these things. But the thing that I fix­ated on, the thing that stayed with me, the thing that I’ll be think­ing about long af­ter I’ve for­got­ten all these ab­stract in­tel­lec­tual points is ... Joaquin Phoenix’s pos­ture.

Yes, I be­came ob­ses­sively in­ter­ested in Phoenix’s sin­gu­lar way of sit­ting, stand­ing and walk­ing. I fix­ated on the line of his back as he lies drunk­enly passed out, the fling­ing of his limbs as he runs from a mob, the crooked shuf­fle of his step as he si­dles around a high-so­ci­ety draw­ing room. There’s a lot to puz­zle over in Phoenix’s por­trayal of Fred­die Quell, a shat­tered for­mer ser­vice­man who’s picked up by a quasi-spir­i­tual self-help move­ment called “The Cause.” But most of it comes down to his body — to his hunched shoul­ders and hol­lowed-out chest, his long arms and heavy, hang­ing hands.

The source of Phoenix’s in­ef­fa­bly odd pos­ture choices be­gan to fall into place when I read an in­ter­view in which the ac­tor re­vealed that An­der­son called him “Bub­bles” on set, a ref­er­ence to Michael Jack­son’s chimp.

Phoenix’s star­tling and un­set­tling phys­i­cal­ity does sug­gest some kind of semi-feral state. Cult leader Lan­caster Dodd, deftly played as half­bam­boo­zling and half-sin­cere by Philip Sey­mour Hoffman, con­fi­dently de­claims that “man is not an an­i­mal. We are not part of the an­i­mal king­dom.” This is a no­tion con­tra­dicted by Phoenix pretty much ev­ery time he ap­pears on screen. He’s a pri­mate, all right.

Fred­die is drunk, vi­o­lent and volatile, a tan­gled mess of in­stincts and im­pulses. In a spir­i­tual move­ment that be­lieves that any­one can rule over his or her base emo­tions, Fred­die is a prob­lem. He be­comes not just Dodd’s pet project, but al­most lit­er­ally his pet. Dodd calls him “a silly an­i­mal,” “a fear­ful crea­ture that eats its own ex­cre­ment.” Fred­die is “a good boy,” “a naughty boy,” a kind of beaten dog that’s ei­ther cring­ing or snarling.

One stand­alone mo­ment — Fred­die’s fright­en­ingly phys­i­cal jail­house freak-out — is the lit­eral em­bod­i­ment of an­i­mal des­per­a­tion. Ev­i­dently, Phoenix pre­pared for the scene by look­ing at the be­hav­iour of wild crea­tures that in­ad­ver­tently get trapped inside houses.

Phoenix has al­ways been an un­com­fort­able, con­fronta­tional, all-or-noth­ing kind of ac­tor. Dur­ing the film­ing of The Mas­ter, he re­port­edly lived on a sub­sis­tence-level diet, and the dis­turbingly gaunt and gnarled Fred­die is al­most lost in the high pleated pants and bil­low­ing rayon shirts of the 1950s. Some­times he places his hands high up on the back of his waist, a man­nered ges­ture that em­pha­sises his ex­treme, awk­ward an­gu­lar­ity. Like an an­i­mal, Fred­die is lean and hun­gry. Un­like an an­i­mal, it’s not just for food.

The de­lib­er­ate loop­i­ness of this por­trayal seems to build on the ac­tor’s last big project, the hoax-doc­u­men­tary I’m Still Here, in which Phoenix de­clared he was fin­ished with act­ing and pro­ceeded to dive into a spi­ral of messy self-de­struc­tion. His com­mit­ment to what was es­sen­tially a year-long con­cep­tual art project/prac­ti­cal joke demon­strated an as­ton­ish­ing — but al­most un­watch­able — in­ten­sity. That scary un­pre­dictabil­ity is har­nessed and honed here by An­der­son, who is clearly an­other kind of “mas­ter.” Phoenix gives what might be the per­for­mance of his life.

Many crit­ics are sug­gest­ing that The Mas­ter re­quires mul­ti­ple view­ings. Slate critic Dana Stevens re­viewed it twice, once af­ter her first look and then once more af­ter a sec­ond and third view­ing. I know I want to see the film again. In fact, I might have to watch it a few times be­fore I can take my eyes off Joaquin Phoenix and the strange, sad curve of his back.

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