A study in contrasts, “Looper” is a tightly plotted high concept sci-fi thriller and “The Master” is a rambling low concept movie of stunning acting performances. Each illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of their respective approaches.
“Looper” involves assasins (loopers) who kill and dispose of bodies time travelled by crime bosses from the future. Hooded victims blink into the present at precise times and are simultaneously executed, wrapped and disposed. The Loopers are paid in silver bars and party down with drug-laced eye drops and have telekenetic powers and adoring girlfriends who are sex workers. Joe (played by Joseph Gordon-Leavitt), is a slim, natty dresser who carries a modern “blunderbuss” as a weapon. He answers to a boss man played by Jeff Daniels and learns that a new super boss in the future is closing the loops by killing all the loopers. Everything is disrupted when Joe encounters his future self (Bruce Willis) who is trying to kill the 4 year old future-to-be super boss, who throws down with super telekenetic powers. Joe’s entanglements with a farm gal mom, Emily Blunt, give the plot a beating heart and complicate Joe’s motivations.
It’s an engaging stylized thriller, it’s “Matrix” meets “Blade Runner” meets “High Plains Drifter” meets “Time Travelers’ Wife.” The loopers wear dust busters, use large bore revolvers and talk like cow pokes, while Ridley Scott hovercraft search above urban streets lined with dusty, patched economy cars. The acting is good. The movie is a pastiche of sci-fi ideas, yet the result feels original. The raised stakes and ticking clocks and whispered plot points come so fast it becomes confusing, but the movie is riveting and satisfying.
“The Master,” the latest from American auteur Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights” “Magnolia” “There Will Be Blood”), involves a troubled seaman, Freddie Quell (played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix) who tumbles out of World War II and into the world as a photographer, a migrant worker and a drunken hell-raiser. He randomly jumps aboard a new ship, captained by The Master himself (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), author of The Cause and leader of a cultish movement. And so a relationship begins between these two men built on high octane drinking and “processing” to rid Freddie of his past negative experiences. Freddie becomes part of The Master’s regular crew and beats up detractors of The Cause. It is unclear if The Master is manipulating and using Freddie as a guinea pig, is genuinely inspired by him, sees Freddie as a challenging spirit to conquer, or is trying to help him.
You cannot take your eyes off Freddie Quell in his scenes because you have no idea what he will do next. The close ups of him with flared eyes become terrifying. Such is the power of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. We learn of a girl back home who jilts Freddie and is a source of pain. It is unclear if Freddie was destabilized by the war, by the jilting, or was completely nuts to begin with, and thus it is difficult to sympathize with Freddie and put his violent outbursts into context. The Master puts out a new book, is arrested with Freddie, and inspires his followers to naked dancing. The Master’s wife (Amy Adams) begs her husband to get rid of Freddie, and we are shown she is capable of mastering the master.
Some say the film is too scattered or too indulgent, and I disagree with this. Interviews with Paul Thomas Anderson do reveal the movie was filmed with various ideas in mind and was assembled in editing, yet even with lots of questions hanging, the film succeeds as a nuanced and mysterious creation. It is a film designed to trigger discussion of what really was going on, and why things happened the way they did. The film is wildly beautiful and a visual feast: Freddie Quell running across furrowed California fields, a lit yacht floating under the Golden Gate Bridge… The acting is truly extraordinary. Hoffman and Amy Adams are convincing and incredible. It is a heady film, but it fills your head with rare and wonderful stuff.
In a revealing scene toward the end of the movie, The Master tells Freddie (with both disdain and admiration) that everyone has a master, yet Freddie seems to live his life without one. It seems an important key to the movie.