The bar was raised for Hollywood high-flyers when the two big ones were launched last weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival: “The Master,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s aptly named account of a cult leader and his disciple, and “The Cloud Atlas,” collectively directed by the Wachowski sibs and Tom Tykwer from David Mitchell’s bigger than cult novel of the same name.
“The Master,” which was evidently ineligible for the Gold Lion in Venice because it won everything else and starts rolling out in the US on Friday, is a 70mm movie with comparable ambitions — already so critically acclaimed that it risks suffering something of a backlash. “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” were sprawling ensemble pieces that begged comparison to Robert Altman; “The Master,” like “There Will Be Blood,” is a big, bold meditation on a larger-than-life American character with intimations of Theodore Dreiser and his brawny Hollywood analogue King Vidor.
As the only Hollywood director to ever tackle an Ayn Rand screenplay, Vidor seems due for revaluation; the eponymous subject of “The Master” is, like Rand (or his assumed model L. Ron Hubbard), a writer who founds a religion known as “The Cause.” The movie is set in the aftermath of World War II. Newly demobilized from the Navy, Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has his difficulties adjusting to civilian life, if not life in general — the man is one strange dude and Phoenix’s grimacing, mumbling performance is up to the challenge. (Hunched and lurching through his strongest performance ever, the actor suggests a troglodyte Montgomery Clift.)
Freddy meets the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) when, after selling bad booze to some fellow migrant workers, he takes it on the lam and finds himself on Dodd’s yacht — or rather a yacht that the irrepressible Dodd, half literary swami, half vaudeville performer, is using as a training center for The Cause. Soon, Freddy is playing Igor to Dodd’s Dracula — variously as a subject for hypnosis, an enforcer, and a barely socialized surrogate son.
Dodd is not exactly L. Ron Hubbard. (Nor is The Cause identical with Scientology although there do seem to be some references, as when Dodd holds forth on his cosmology or tells Freddy that his sense of fear was “an imprint from millions of years ago.”) The main thing is that Hoffman’s mind-fucking swami is great a character as Phoenix’s useful, if not always controllable, idiot — and so “The Master” has a balance lacking from the Daniel Day Lewis show that “There Will Be Blood” ultimately became. Indeed, as its title suggests, “The Master” can be read as a dramatization of Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic in which Dodd recognizes his mastery through Freddy’s subservience and Freddy achieves consciousness through becoming Dodd’s disciple.
That said, the movie hardly feels so weighty. Disorienting or slightly off-kilter, perhaps — in fact, it’s almost a comedy. Does it work? I’d need to see it again to be sure. The main thing is that “The Master” is so unlike anything else in its seriousness and so admirable in its vitality that one has to support it.
If “The Master” is novelistic in form and old-school 20th century in design, “Cloud Atlas” is rooted in the montage-madness of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 “Intolerance.” Mitchell’s six, wildly divergent nested stories are given an all-over simultaneity accentuated by the recirculation of key actors (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant) through multiple roles, sometimes in drag.
The movie, which runs nearly three hours and spans a period of some hundreds of years (from the mid 19th to the 22nd century and beyond into some post-apocalyptic future), has many big ideas concerning freedom and slavery and love and greed and art and karma and eternity (“nay, the dead never stay dead”), but it’s mainly an exercise in action and editing.
I can’t speak about the novel but the movie is a grand symphony of distraction — and not just because you see Tom Hanks in an ill-fitting orange Beatles wig revealing corporate secrets to ace reporter Halle Berry in one scene and jabbering in an invented patois (also to Halle Berry) while wrapped in a moth-eaten macramé cloak in the next. The chases and explosions are fine, but best thing is the montage — the often witty match- or ludicrous shock-cuts that transport the viewer back and forth in time from one epoch to another.
I wouldn’t call “The Cloud Atlas” pure cinema, but there are times when it resembles on Oscar night montage composed of clips from “Blade Runner,” “A Clockwork Orange," “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest," “The Matrix," and “One Million BC” with odd intimations of Monty Python and Andrzej ?u?awski’s “On the Silver Globe." The mix and mash trumps the balderdash. “I believe there’s another world and I’ll be waiting for you there,” some says towards the end. Moi aussi… with a big bag of popcorn.
Read more of J. Hoberman's writing on Movie Journal.