Both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here use sly genre subversion to act as commentary on what kinds of movies the audience associates with these kind of haunted men, their arcs, and the nature of violence. Subverting audience expectations is in and of itself not necessarily a better option. You can have unexpected things happen but the narrative that happens after needs to be compelling, and if possible, unavoidable in hindsight (Game of Thrones is good at this). By the same notion, the finale of Breaking Bad was pretty easy to anticipate but that’s because of how well written the storytelling trajectory was pointing to its natural end. I can tell a tense father-son reconciliation story and then if I end it with a meteor wiping out the Earth all of a sudden, well that’s unexpected but that doesn’t make it better storytelling. What helps elevate both movies is that the subversions are thematically related to the relationship between violence and vengeance, absolution and atonement, and the audience and our desires with these films.
In First Reformed, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke, enthralling) is the caretaker of a small upstate New York church where the weekly attendance can be counted on one hand. The church, First Reformed, is nearing the commemoration of its two hundred-fiftieth anniversary that will be celebrated by local dignitaries and the governor. Reverend Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, surprisingly adept in drama) is the pastor for the mega church that seems to have everything that First Reformed lacks. Jeffers wants to help out Toller but the humble man of the cloth refuses. Rev. Toller is pushed out of his comfort zone by the husband of a pregnant woman (Amanda Seyfried) who challenges him on man’s stewardship of the environment. The husband worries about bringing a child into this world and contributing the larger problem of climate change. This interaction gets Rev. Toller to think about his own culpability and sets him on a path of righteous justice.
Writer/director Paul Schrader is famous for his stories about violent men confronting the wickedness of the world around them. From Taxi Driver to Raging Bull to Hardcore, Schrader has a penchant for documenting the self-destructive recourse of flawed men who feel removed or constrained by a society they feel is out of step with morality. What better canvas then for Schrader than a middle-aged pastor at a small, reclusive church? Rev. Toller is so humble he doesn’t own more than a few sticks of furniture in his home, the adjoining parsonage to the church. He’s friendly but often choosing to keep to himself, forgoing comforts and perceived handouts from the people around him. A woman his own age keeps trying to connect with him, their romantic coupling in the past a platform for her to continue hoping he’ll come around to her. She’s a perfectly nice woman, a choir headmistress for the mega church down the road, but she reminds Toller of his weakness and maybe even something worse. The aforementioned mega church basically keeps Toller’s small parish afloat as a charity (First Reformed is nicknamed the “gift shop church” for its historical notoriety). Rev. Jeffers is concerned about his fellow man of the cloth and the toll his solitude and seclusion is taking on him. It’s like he’s trying to atone for something, taking on a very Christ-like path of penitence. It’s around here that the character is activated into a higher calling in conflict with the church.
I’ll explain what I was expecting given the premise and presence of Schrader. I was expecting a movie much in keeping with A History of Violence, where a small-town man is thrust back into a past life of violence by outside forces and he has to confront how far this “new him” has come from the sins of “old him.” I was expecting Toller to become more violent and radicalized, pitting others in his cross-hairs for retribution. That’s not really First Reformed at all. First off, it’s the slowest of slow burns. You better be prepared to luxuriate in the day-to-day details of Rev. Toller’s simple life, from unclogging toilets to visiting with parishioners in their homes and having long philosophical conversations with them about faith and man’s role in the ecosystem. That conversation specifically teeters toward ten minutes and serves as the end of Act One, and I think if you’re still invested by then, you’ll be along for the rest of the film. However, it’s not going to be an easily accessible movie. This conversation stirs something deeper inside Toller, dissatisfaction with the church and how it coddles with big business, the chief polluters of God’s kingdom. Toller becomes a late-in-life environmental activist who questions the stewardship of the church body. This sets him on a path that seems destined for bloody violence. He’s going to go out in a fury of righteousness. We’re expecting a big bang by the end, especially given Schrader’s history of these kinds of stories with these kinds of men. But that doesn’t happen.
I’ll try and avoid spoilers but discussion over the thematic relevance of the end of First Reformed will unavoidably suggest to the reader some significant plot developments, so please feel free to read this paragraph or skip to the next one. The second half of the movie is setting you up for a very specific ending, one where Toller strikes back against forces he feels are detrimental to the well being of the church. It’s setting you up for a climactic showdown with powerful forces that feel unaccountable for their actions. I was ready for a final rush of violence to serve as the crescendo to Schrader’s slow burn. This is where the movie swerves away from audience expectations. We’re prepared for a meaningful death but instead Schrader’s ending, in retrospect, makes us question why we should have desired such a violent and vengeful finale. Why should this character be a martyr for our bloodlust against the powerful? Ultimately, Schrader’s movie ends on a romantic, optimistic note of personal salvation after setting you up for a dark story with a predetermined, self-destructive end. The abruptness of the ending may inspire some titters, but when you look back at the film, it makes complete sense and calls into question why we would wish for blood and violence over human connection and forgiveness. Schrader is saying that you wanted the wrong kind of movie.
First Reformed takes the modest aims of its protagonist to heart when it comes to the presentation of its story. Schrader films the entire movie in the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, the square box of old pre-high definition televisions. It’s an aspect ratio that keeps everything centered for the audience and on display. I think there was exactly four camera movements in the entire movie; almost the entirely of the 113 minutes is from a stationary, documentary-styled camera. It’s a very specific visual style that limits the visual information and dynamism but manages to personalize the main character even more. It’s his movie and his journey of self, so the visual representation is also restrained. There’s really one flash of upsetting violence in the whole movie, as if to remind the audience how a violent death is not something to be celebrated. For an R-rated Paul Schrader movie, it’s far more reserved, subtle, and thoughtful. It left me thinking about Rev. Toller and his messianic mission and our desire for a big bloody finish. The idea of a selfless death directed toward violent retribution is inherently self-involved. It’s not death that provides meaning but life, it’s not how we end but what we do with the days beforehand.
You Were Never Really Here is built as a hitman thriller based on Jonathan Ames’ novel. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hired gun who specializes in rescuing young women. He’s hired to find the missing adolescent daughter of a senatorial candidate. He investigates the underbelly of sex trafficking to save this little girl, but larger forces are at play and will make Joe suffer gravely for interfering with their wanton exploitation.
The average audience for You Were Never Really Here has been steadily fed a diet of these kinds of movies, from the artful (Luc Besson’s The Professional), to the pulpy (The Long Kiss Goodnight), to any number of hollow, nihilistic video game-styled murder fantasies (Hitman, a thousand straight-to-DVD movies). We’re expecting men of action who are ruthlessly efficient and clever when it comes to their killing. We’re expecting stylish merchants of death who leave behind a heavy body count with swagger. That’s not what brilliant Scottish writer/director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) has in mind at all. She takes the iconography of the hitman thriller and turns it into an expectation-smashing existential character study, but not just of its disturbed main character but also for the audience and our relationship to these movies. We expect remorseless killing machines that turn death into splashy and cool tableaus. These movies aren’t so much key on mediation and reflection, beyond the standard “reap what you sow” adage.
Much of the violence is kept off screen or purposely denied to the audience. I’m trying to remember if we even see Joe kill anyone on screen. The infiltration of the sex trafficking organization hops between fixed security angles, edited together in a dissonant manner, where the last shot doesn’t fully line up for a smooth edit, leaving a half second. The effect is one that’s knowingly alienating and challenging. When Joe does unleash his violent skills, it’s rarely given a showcase for entertainment. This is a movie that doesn’t celebrate its violence. There’s a moment where Joe lies on the ground beside a mortally wounded bad guy. They exchange a few cordial words, he procures some vital information, but then Joe stays with the man and the two sing a song together. It sounds bizarre when written out but it’s a moment that really stuck with me. After everything, these two men can find a small sliver of humanity between them to share. Even the final confrontation, the big climactic set piece of any other movie, ends with a shoulder shrug, as if Ramsay is saying to the audience, “Why would seeing all that be cathartic?”
For Ramsay, the focus of the movie is on the man committing the acts of violence rather than how stylish and cool and cinematic those acts of violence can be. This is the one area where I feel a longer running time could have better helped her goal. I think Ramsay might be the best filmmaker we have for triptych narratives. 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is a startling and insightful movie that opens up the guilt of a woman whose son grew up very badly, jumping around time periods, using a repetition of images to provide visual stings and associations. You Were Never Really Here does similar labor, establishing our strong silent protagonist through glimpses of a troubled past, from a childhood with an abusive father and a mother he would have to save, to incidents during military service and police investigations that reminded Joe about the depravity of others, in particular the ability to exploit and dehumanize women as disposable property. Ramsay offers discorded images and brief flashes and asks the audience to put together the pieces to better understand Joe as a man propelled and haunted by his bloody past. However, at a slim 89 minutes, the audience could have used more time and opportunity to better develop and analyze this central character. The pieces are tantalizing but I wanted more, and as a result I found Joe to be an interesting start to a character that was in need of more time and attention to transcend the boundaries of his archetype. I needed a little more from him and his world.
There are several moments that quickly come to my memory, sticking with me because of the level of artistic arrangement or implication. Because Ramsay wants to take the Hollywood hitman revenge thriller and deconstruct it and provoke her audience and its desires for violence, there isn’t much of a plot to this movie. I could literally spoil the whole thing with the following sentence: a man of violence is hired to find a missing girl, finds her, loses her, and finds her again at great personal expense. The movie is more of a poignant and intriguing exercise in our relationship to these kinds of stories. There are moments of beauty in the movie that took my breath away, like when Joe lowers a wrapped body into the depths of a lake, and with the shafts of light, the curls of hair, the small visual details, it felt like watching a living baroque painting. There are also several bizarre moments that stand out, like when Joe fantasizes about blowing his brains out at a diner while the patrons, and the blood-soaked waitress, go about their day. It’s these little flourishes that make the movie stand above other hitman movie deconstruction exercises like George Clooney’s overly solemn The American. It’s not all tragedy and inescapable dread. Amidst Joe’s tortured past and troubled future, there’s a necessary sense of hope. You don’t know what will happen next but you’re not resigned to retrograde nihilism.
Both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here are slow burn indie character studies that ask their audience to question the movies they’ve been set up for. Schrader and Ramsay are deft storytellers who pair their visual gifts to the psyches of their damaged, haunted, and self-destructive middle-aged men. Hawke is phenomenal as Rev. Toller and Phoenix is suitably unsettled from a life of confronting predatory violence. Both movies have also stayed with me, though First Reformed I find to be the better developed, better executed, better acted of the two films. It’s enough of a comeback for Schrader, whose last film I remember seeing was the laughably bad Lindsay Lohan “erotic thriller” The Canyons. These are two movies that aren’t exactly the most accessible. Both challenge the audience to analyze the personal relationships with genre storytelling. If you have patience and an open mind, both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here provide thoughtful and methodical examinations on genre, violence, and the visceral appeal of empty bloodshed.
First Reformed: A-
You Were Never Really Here: B
This is one of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever had to write. It’s not because I’m torn over the film; no, it’s because this review will also serve as my break-up letter. Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA), we’re just moving in two different directions. We met when we were both young and headstrong. I enjoyed your early works Paul, but then somewhere around There Will be Blood, things changed. You didn’t seem like the PTA I had known to love. You became someone else, and your films represented this change, becoming plotless and laborious centerpieces on self-destructive men. Others raved to the heavens over Blood but it left me cold. Maybe I’m missing something, I thought. Maybe the problem is me. Maybe it’s just a phase. Then in 2012 came The Master, a pretentious and ultimately futile exercise anchored by the wrong choice for a main character. When I saw the early advertisements for Inherent Vice I got my hopes up. It looked like a weird and silly throwback, a crime caper that didn’t take itself so seriously. At last, I thought, my PTA has returned to me. After watching Inherent Vice, I can no longer deny the reality I have been ducking. My PTA is gone and he’s not coming back. We’ll always have Boogie Nights, Paul. It will still be one of my favorite films no matter what.
In the drug-fueled world of 1970 Los Angeles, stoner private eye Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) is visited by one of his ex-girlfriends, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She’s in a bad place. The man she’s in love with, the wealthy real estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is going to be conned. Mickey’s wife, and her boyfriend, is going to commit the guy to a mental hospital ward and take control of his empire. Then Shasta and Mickey go missing. Doc asks around, from his police detective contact named Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), to an ex (Reese Witherspoon) who happens to be in the L.A. justice department, to a junkie (Jena Malone) with a fancy set of fake teeth thanks to a coked-out dentist (Martin Short) who may be a front for an Asian heroin cartel. Or maybe not. As more and more strange characters come into orbit, Doc’s life is placed in danger, and all he really wants to find out is whether his dear Shasta is safe or not.
Inherent Vice is a shaggy dog detective tale that is too long, too convoluted, too slow, too mumbly, too confusing, and not nearly funny or engaging enough. If it weren’t for the enduring pain that was The Master, this would qualify as Anderson’s worst picture.
One of my main complaints of Anderson’s last two movies has been the paucity of a strong narrative, especially with the plodding Master. It almost felt like Anderson was, subconsciously or consciously, evening the scales from his plot-heavy early works. Being plotless is not a charge one can levy against Inherent Vice. There is a story here with plenty of subplots and intrigue. The problem is that it’s almost never coherent, as if the audience is lost in the same pot haze as its loopy protagonist. The mystery barely develops before the movie starts heaping subplot upon subplot, each introducing more and more characters, before the audience has a chance to process. It’s difficult to keep all the characters and their relationships straight, and then just when you think you have everything settled, the film provides even more work. The characters just feel like they’re playing out in different movies (some I would prefer to be watching), with the occasional crossover. I literally gave up 45 minutes into the movie and accepted the fact that I’m not going to be able to follow it, so I might as well just watch and cope. This defeatist attitude did not enhance my viewing pleasure. The narrative is too cluttered with side characters and superfluous digressions.
The plot is overstuffed with characters, many of which will only appear for one sequence or even one scene, thus polluting a narrative already crammed to the seams with characters to keep track of. Did all of these characters need to be here and visited in such frequency? Doc makes for a fairly frustrating protagonist. He’s got little personality to him and few opportunities to flesh him out. Not having read Thomas Pynchon’s novel, I cannot say how complex the original character was that Anderson had to work with. Doc just seems like a placeholder for a character, a guy who bumbles about with a microphone, asking others questions and slowly unraveling a convoluted conspiracy. He’s more a figure to open other characters up than a character himself. The obvious comparison to the film and the protagonist is The Big Lebowski, a Coen brothers film I’m not even that fond over. However, with Lebowski, the Coens gave us memorable characters that separated themselves from the pack. The main character had a definite personality even if he was drunk or stoned for most of the film. Except for Short’s wonderfully debased and wily five minutes onscreen, every character just kind of washes in and out of your memory, only registering because of a famous face portraying him or her. Even in the closing minutes, the film is still introducing vital characters. The unnecessary narration by musician Joanna Newsome is also dripping with pretense.
Another key factor that limits coherency is the fact that every damn character mumbles almost entirely through the entirety of the movie. And that entirety, by the way, is almost two and a half hours, a running time too long by at least 30 minutes, especially when Doc’s central mystery of what happened to Shasta is over before the two-hour mark. For whatever reason, it seems that Anderson has given an edict that no actor on set can talk above a certain decibel level or enunciate that clearly. This is a film that almost requires a subtitle feature. There are so many hushed or mumbled conversations, making it even harder to keep up with the convoluted narrative. Anderson’s camerawork can complicate the matter as well. Throughout the film, he’ll position his characters speaking and slowly, always so slowly, zoom in on them, as if we’re eavesdropping. David Fincher did something similar with his sound design on Social Network, amping up the ambient noise to force the audience to tune their ears and pay closer attention. However, he had Aaron Sorkin’s words to work with, which were quite worth our attention. With Inherent Vice, the characters talk in circles, tangents, and limp jokes. After a protracted setup, and listening to one superficially kooky character after another, you come to terms with the fact that while difficult to follow and hear, you’re probably not missing much.
Obviously, Inherent Vice is one detective mystery where the answers matter less than the journey and the various characters that emerge, but I just didn’t care, period. It started too slow, building a hazy atmosphere that just couldn’t sustain this amount of prolonged bloat and an overload of characters. Anderson needed to prune Pynchon’s novel further. What appears onscreen is just too difficult to follow along, and, more importantly, not engaging enough to justify the effort. The characters fall into this nether region between realism and broadly comic, which just makes them sort of unrealistic yet not funny enough. The story rambles and rambles, set to twee narration that feels like Newsome is just reading from the book, like Anderson could just not part with a handful of prose passages in his translation. Much like The Master, I know there will be champions of this movie, but I won’t be able to understand them. This isn’t a zany Chinatown meets Lewboswki. This isn’t some grand throwback to 1970s cinema. This isn’t even much in the way of a comedy, so be forewarned. Inherent Vice is the realization for me that the Paul Thomas Anderson I fell in love with is not coming back. And that’s okay. He’s allowed to peruse other movies just as I’m allowed to see other directors. I wish him well.
Nate’s Grade: C+
It’s been several years for Spike Jonze since he escaped the turmoil around Where the Wild Things Are, an ambitious adaptation that ran afoul with studio execs over the oppressively sad tone (I agreed with the execs). He’s one of the most stylish visual directors working today, but Her is something very different for the man. For starters, it’s a film Jonze wrote himself; no collaboration with Charlie Kaufman this time. It’s also a pared down love story, focusing heavily on two characters and their exciting and emerging union. There are no visual tricks, no gimmicks, no overt special effects, nothing to distract from the central relationship commanding the screen. It’s a different kind of film from Jonze but one that’s just as brilliantly well made as his best. Her is a beguiling winner.
Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man struggling to get his life back together. He’s a star at his job where he writes other people’s personal letters for them, but he’s a sensitive soul still refusing to sign the divorce papers from his ex-wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara). He doesn’t want to lose that part of his life. After watching an ad, Theodore buys a new computer operating system (OS) that promises to be the most lifelike possible. He pops the software onto his computer and, voila, the voice of Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) emerges, chipper, helpful, and compassionate. Theodore is a new man with her assistance, and soon they grow even closer together on a romantic scale. Theodore and Samantha embark on the greta unknown together, but can a relationship work when it’s with a voice in your computer.
It’s been weeks since I first watched Her and I keep thinking back upon it, turning it over in my mind, finding more and more to like about this captivating little movie. It’s a tenderhearted and poignant movie that also manages to have something to say about human connection. And this really is a love story, and an engrossing one at that, despite the fact that it’s man and machine. The romance between Samantha and Theodore is never looked down upon, marginalized, the setup to some punch line about how nerd can’t get dates with real women. You think the film might go there, and then Theodore’s co-workers just shrug when the truth comes out and treat his relationship like any other. I suppose you could make all sorts of analogues, but they are unnecessary because Samantha truly feels like another person. She’s given complexity, curiosity, impulses, and, yes, as voiced by the husky-voiced Johansson, an alluring edge. Because she’s a disembodied voice minus form, theirs is a relationship built upon intellect, conversation, personality, and a burgeoning connection, though they do cover the sex part as well. In fact, the climactic (pardon the pun) vocal exploration is simultaneously awkward, funny, heartfelt, and yes, even a little sexy, and the music crescendos to give it even more oomph. Samantha is learning just as much about herself as Theodore is. Their relationship is opening both of them up to the possibilities they might never have sought. In that respect, Jonze’s film falls under that sweet spell all engaging romances achieve where our spirits are lifted and we swoon along with the onscreen coupling.
I’ve found it tricky to talk about Her at least in describing the premise to other people; comparing Samantha to Siri has helped rather than just referring to her as an “operating system.” One concern I had was that Jonze was just going to deliver the premise in a very expected manner and Her would serve up more of the same. But he doesn’t. While this is a light science fiction film, it is extremely well developed and thought out. Jonze has taken remarkable care to flesh out his story and enrich the not too distant future world. It felt like a world that could reasonably exist. I enjoyed the fact that there were so-called surrogates for hire, people that would serve as the physical embodiments of the OS personalities, providing a different kind of encounter, one meant to converge intimacy with touch. I could see these people existing if this were the future. Even better, Jonze takes great care to develop the central relationship between his lovers, so that every unique complication is given some form of respectful coverage. They discuss the limitations but not just what you would assume. Yes Samantha has no body, but she can also be in many places at once, doing many things at once, and simply will outlive all her carbon-based life form companions. Can they make this last? Even with the technological component, old problems can rear their head, particularly jealousy, like when Samantha begins communicating with other OS personalities. Then there’s Theodore’s lingering divorce with his wife, a woman who can stir up old feelings and doubts. Without giving too much away, the end manages to be hopeful, melancholy, expected, and satisfying.
Jonze also manages to slide in some subtle jabs about the state of communication and connection. There’s an early shot where Theodore is riding a train and everyone on board appears to be talking except that they’re all talking to their OS, each person an isolated unit. Theodore’s job also seems like a perfect social commentary as well as a clever conceit for a man who has unsurpassed skill with words but difficulty with the flesh-and-blood interaction. It works directly with the theme of the film. I also find it humorous, and a bit subversive, that Theodore has long-standing relationships with clients. He’s been writing letters for certain couples for years going all the way back to their first meeting. Think about that, this couple’s communication and courtship rest upon the words of an intermediary paid for his services. These people could go their entire lives thinking their partner is the author of such wonderful, heartfelt, observant words. That’s the dearth of honest communication plaguing human relationships, but it’s not a new problem. We’ve all ducked hard conversations. Many of us would love to have someone come in and do the dirty work while we sit back and reap the rewards. But a relationship built upon deceit or convenience will ultimately fall apart, or, in this new age of technological isolation and greater deception, will it?
Jonze’s direction seems invisible, like we’re dropping in on these characters and peaking on their lives. The overall technical aesthetic of Her is a clean, simplified look and feel for a love story that manages to be new and familiar. The production design has an eye-catching degree of colors, which bathe the film in a consistently dreamy, gauzy aura, echoing the screenplay’s warm heart. The score by the Canadian alternative band Arcade Fire is low-key but just as vulnerable, resonant, and special as the characters in the film. It’s mostly pared down piano trinkles but the reoccurring motifs stick in your head, elevating Jonze’s film. When Samantha takes up composing songs to express her sum total feelings of a moment, capturing a snapshot of a particular time as she refers, it’s nice to have talented musicians able to bring this to life.
Phoneix (The Master) gives such a tender, vulnerable performance that you worry that he’s going to be crushed by life. He has this remarkable way of making you want to hug Theodore, like he’s this sad puppy that just needs a good home. There are moments in the film where just one perfectly executed crinkly-eyed crooked smile tells me everything about this character. Phoenix plays his character as a good-hearted, amiable, and deeply romantic individual, and the sheer strength of his performance will knock you back. Theodore has such great pools of empathy, and a poet’s soul, which allows him to excel at his job but it also makes relationships hard. A relationship takes work, and Theodore may have not been up to the labor, as his ex-wife argues. Personally, I found a lot of striking points of similarity with the character and I think others will as well. Who hasn’t, in a moment of dark-clouded funk, wondered if they’ve reached the apex of their emotional experiences, that everything will somehow be lesser variations? Who hasn’t feared that they somehow tapped out on their ability to love as powerfully as before? As Theodore is picking up the pieces of his life, trying to determine his new sense of self, we’re learning alongside him exactly how Samantha is changing him.
Before this movie, I would have said a Johansson (Don Jon) performance minus her body would be a travesty, but damn if she doesn’t give a performance that is worthy of the Oscar buzz. It’s easy to understand why Theodore falls for Samantha, and you will too. Johansson has never been this winsome and loveable but she’s far more than some idealized Super Girlfriend to be placed precariously on a pedestal. She’s learning too, making choices, some of them bad, and exploring the consequences. The depth of emotion she’s able to convey with a character only heard audibly is impressive. Samantha is a fully formed character that wants to be treated as such, and Johansson give her all the shadings of a living being. She’s inquisitive, funny, curious, but also eerily human in her mannerisms, like when she uses short breaths when feeling awkward even though she has no use for breath, obviously. Johansson is so easily sultry, voice included, but Samantha is not relegated to some high-tech toy, some quirky sexual fantasy. She feels real, which is why their relationship feels genuine and so moving and charming.
Who knew the most affecting love story of 2013 would involve a man and his computer? Her is an insightful, touching, and rewarding movie that hits you on many levels, satisfying all of them. It’s a smart film that explores the various complications of its premise while widening its scope further, it’s heartfelt and humble as it approaches relatable matters of love and loss and feeling adrift, it’s sweetly romantic while at the same time being tethered to reality, finding a perfect balance, and at its core it’s the tale of two people, one human and one mechanical, that find happiness in one another. People will likely pick the movie apart to search for personal messages from Jonze about his own divorce from filmmaker Sofia Coppola in 2003. Maybe that stuff is buried in there, but Jonze has crafted something far more applicable and enjoyable. Her is an openly romantic film that doesn’t shortchange heartache, and it posits that love is love no matter whom it’s directed at. Her is an extraordinary sort of movie and one I plan on revisiting again. Give this unconventional romance a chance and you may be delightfully surprised.
Nate’s Grade: A
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson met with great resistance when he was shopping his script around for The Master. It was dubbed the “Scientology movie” and reportedly based upon the controversial religion and its leader, L. Ron Hubbard. It looked like Hollywood was spooked by the prospect of a movie that appeared to take on Scientology. Eventually Anderson got his financing and made the movie he wanted to make. Calling it the “Scientology movie” is misleading. I wish The Master was a Scientology expose because that would be far more interesting than the exasperating film I got, which is one nutty guy who dabbled in a Scientology-like cult. Maybe the resistance Anderson experienced wasn’t an indication of the subject matter. Perhaps it was only an indication that The Master just wasn’t a compelling story, a charge I can agree with wholeheartedly after viewing this disappointing film.
Freddie Quells (Joaquin Phoenix) is struggling to adjust to life after World War II. Fresh out of the Navy, he works as a department store photographer, until his rage and social awkwardness lead to him being fired. He’s drifting about and hops onto a ferry leaving town. Onboard is Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who describes himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all, a man.” Dodd has gathered a revered following. He believes that people can regress to past lives trillions, yes you read that right, of years into the past. Dodd’s own children admit that dear old dad is “making it up as he goes along.” His movement, known as The Cause, has been called a cult by detractors, the will of one man, and the followers don’t take kindly to challenges from the outside. Dodd adopts Freddie as a project. He’s on the verge of completing his second major treatise and Freddie seems to be an inspiration for him. Freddie finds some measure of acceptance within Dodd’s community of followers, but his erratic behavior keeps people on constant edge.
I found The Master to be boring; uncompromisingly boring, hopelessly boring, but worse than all that, pointlessly boring. Was this really a story that needed to be told? I cannot fathom why Anderson chose to tell this story or, in particular, why he chose to tell it through the character of Freddie Quell. A story about a huckster exploiting people with a religion he made up is a fascinating story with or without the Scientology/L. Ron Hubbard connections. That’s a story worthy of being made. Now, instead of this, we have two hours of a guy acting nuts. I would better be able to stomach the Freddie character if I felt like anything of significance was happening to him. He’s a broken man, clearly mentally ill in some capacity, and prone to outbursts that turn violent. Does he change? Does he grow? Does he do anything? Does his life have anything of significance happen to him over the course of 137 minutes? Not really. He’s pretty much the same guy from start to finish; his arc is essentially that he’s crazy at the start, meets Dodd, and then is crazy at the end. We get it, the guy is messed up. He makes a drink out of paint thinner for crying out loud. I didn’t care about him at all. I don’t need to see static scene after static scene of this guy acting out. I wasn’t a There Will Be Blood fan but at least Daniel Plainview was a strong central character with enough dimensions to carry a film. Freddie Quell just isn’t that interesting or entertaining. He’s actually a tiresome character because you get a perfect sense of who he is in just 10 minutes. The rest of the movie just seems to remind you what you already know.
It is a disappointing realization but I feel like the Paul Thomas Anderson I enjoyed is slipping away, as his flashy, propulsive, plot-heavy early work has given way to opaque, reserved, and plotless movies. It’s like I just watched someone with the verve of Martin Scorsese transform into a poetic film somnambulist like Terrence Malick; not a good move. I don’t know what Anderson’s message is or what he was trying to say, and I’m unsure why he decided to use a limited character like Freddy Quells as his prism. It almost feels like Anderson is compensating for his plot-driven films of his early career, like he has to balance the scales in his mind. I shudder where this recompense might take Anderson for his next film. I like to think of myself as an intelligent moviegoer who enjoys being challenged by movies. But that doesn’t mean I’ll accept anything challenging as quality. Case in point: Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialism, which was contemptuous of its audience. I don’t mind doing work but you have to give me a reason. There has to be a reward, either with the narrative or with the characters. I found no rewards with The Master and it’s not because I didn’t “get it,” film snobs, it’s because the movie was too opaque to say anything of substance beyond simplistic observations about the abuse of power and influence.
When I say plotless I don’t mean that we’re simply watching paint dry, though there are stretches of The Master where I would feel that could be a suitable test from Dodd. There are events. There are scenes. There are changing relationships. It’s just that none of this seems to matter, or at least it never feels like it does. There’s no build, no increase in urgency, and The Master just sort of drifts along to the detached rhythms of Freddie. The movie can feel interminable, and you may ask yourself, on a loop, “Is this going anywhere?” There are two scenes that stand out because there are so few that seem to matter. One is shortly after Dodd and Freddie have been arrested. The two men are locked in opposing cells and they explode in venomous anger. It feels like Anderson can finally allow his characters to vent out what they’ve truly been feeling. Another memorable scene, just for weirdness, is when we jump inside Freddie’s head. All the women, young and old, at a social gathering suddenly lose their clothing (think: Choke). It’s one of the best scenes at exploring Freddie’s sexual compulsions, plus it’s just peculiar. I wanted more scenes like this where we try and get inside the man’s mind. The rest of the characters are underwritten, especially Amy Adams (Trouble with the Curve) as Dodd’s wife and fierce protector. This is a movie about two strong-willed men and everybody else gets relegated to minimal supporting positions. I miss the sprawling humanism of Boogie Nights and Magnolia.
From a technical standpoint, the movie is very accomplished. The 1950s era setting is lushly recreated, aided by cinematography that seems to present this bygone age in a colorless manner. By this I mean that the world feels muted, repressed, the colors are there but they don’t pop, and I think this look fits the movie marvelously. Anderson shot the film in 70mm, which would offer startling detail to his images. I did not see the film projected this way (as will most) but you could sense the time and effort put into getting the details of his world right. The musical score by Johnny Greenwood is minimalist but effective, with a few key strokes of a guitar to note rising tension.
The true draw of the film is the performances, which are excellent and at least provide a reason for staying awake. This is Phoenix’s first role since his two-year performance stunt documented in I’m Still Here. It feels like his off-putting, confrontational, bizarre antics for that faux documentary were all just training for playing the character of Freddie. The man has sad, droopy eyes, a fixed sneer that denotes his permanent displeasure and cocksure attitude. He speaks in mumbled sentences, he walks with his arms pinned out, donning the posture and behavior of a chicken. It’s at once an odd and striking performance, and Phoenix does his best to make the character worthy of your attention. He gives it his all, but sadly Freddie just doesn’t merit prominence. Hoffman (Moneyball) is equally alluring as the charming huckster who seems to come alive under a spotlight; the man exudes an oily presence, and yet there are a handful of moments where he lashes out, venting the roiling anger that seems to be barely contained at times. Hoffman’s performance is one of willful self-delusion rather than rampant self-destruction, which makes him far more compelling in my opinion. I would have preferred a Lancaster Dodd movie rather than a Freddie Quells movie.
The Master is a confounding, airless, opaque character study that is far from masterful. The faults of the film and its stilted ambitions lay squarely at the feet of its flawed central character, Freddie Quell. The movie adopts Freddie’s demeanor, managing a distant, standoffish, defiant attitude that thumbs its nose at audience demands. Don’t you know entertainment has no place in art, silly filmgoers?
Anderson is still a vastly talented filmmaker but I lament the path his career has taken. I adored the first four movies of Anderson’s career, but now I wonder if I’ll ever get something along the likes of Boogie Nights or even Punch-Drunk Love again. At this point Anderson has earned enough artistic latitude to tell whatever stories he so chooses. This is why my frustration has mounted because I am at a loss to why he feels compelled to tell this story and in this manner. The Master is an artistically stillborn affair. You want to believe there’s more under the surface but I don’t see it. The main ideas and themes are hammered with little variation, the slight plot drifts aimlessly finding no sense of momentum, and the characters are kept at such distance that the film feels clinical, like we’re observing creatures under glass for study. It just so happens that none of these characters warrant the attention. The Master will be praised by a plethora of film critics. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said it renews your faith in American cinema. I had the opposite reaction. The Master made me lose faith, mainly that I’ll ever enjoy a Paul Thomas Anderson film from this point on.
Nate’s Grade: C
Joaquin Phoenix may not be the most stable of actors, but anyone could have successfully guessed that his public meltdown and entry into rap, complete with a scraggly mountain man beard, was a hoax. Phoenix and his brother-in-law Casey Affleck worked out a two-year piece of performance art, with Phoenix completely committing to his egotistical, self-destructive send-up of actors. Affleck directed the exploits, which is another clue that everything is a hoax. Do you think his brother-in-law, and a respected actor, would film Phoenix going overboard, snorting coke, lying with hookers, having an assistant literally defecate on his face, and then try and turn a buck? I’m Still Here is like a Saturday Night Live sketch, or an improv game, that stretches on forever. Whatever points Phoenix and Affleck may have had in mind get utterly lost at a plodding 108 minutes. The movie feels as bloated as Phoenix’s expanding waistline. Phoenix’s Andy Kaufman-esque practical joke is admirable but that doesn’t mean anybody needs to see this ramshackle, artless mess. It all comes across like a self-indulgent jape between friends, a personal project that loses all meaning outside a limited circle of friends.
Nate’s Grade: C