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Phoenix's masterful posturing

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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 half-bamboozling 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.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2012 E3

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