Paul Thomas Anderson makes films, not movies. For those who don’t think there’s a difference, watch The Master and then watch practically anything else; there’s an undeniable craftsmanship that pervades every frame, and a certainty and singularity of vision that is very rare in the “film by committee” age of Hollywood in which we’re living.
Anderson has grappled with religion before, most recently in There Will Be Blood, but this movie isn’t quite the searing critique on Scientology you may have heard. From the opening moments of the film, in which the camera pans over the top of a quiet sea and suddenly we’re blasted with the loud opening notes of Johnny Greenwood’s score, Anderson seems determined to challenge our preconceived notions about what we’re about to see.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a Navy vet who returns to the States following WWII. He constantly squints, as if his vision isn’t quite properly aligned with the world in which he lives, and indeed, he doesn’t fit in with the rest of society. He drinks anything he can get his hands on (paint thinner included), he’s prone to violence, easily agitated, aggressive, and generally makes people nervous. He’s a child in a man’s body, obsessed with sex but completely unaware of how to treat a woman, and even his crooked posture seems to indicate that’s he’s not comfortable in his own skin. He’s the perfect guinea pig for Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic man who has founded his own religion called The Cause. When Quell stows away on Dodd’s boat one night, Dodd takes Quell under his wing under the auspices of helping him struggle with his difficulties adjusting to normal society, but he actually just uses him as a test subject for new material in order to further his own agenda.
That’s the plot, but it’s not really what the film is about. The Master goes much deeper, tackling complex themes of loyalty, trust, loneliness, deception, power, belief, and struggle as the conflict between the two men escalates. Anderson also explored a similar kind of power struggle between lead characters in There Will Be Blood, but while that film was almost completely devoid of female characters, this one is much more interested in exploring, if not the female characters themselves, then the effect they have on the male psyche. Amy Adams is excellent as Dodd’s wife, a powerful figure in her own right, and Quell’s obsession with women and sex provides some interesting opportunities to examine his twisted mentality as the film progresses. This culminates in – and I’ll be vague here to avoid spoilers – Freddie finally achieving what he thinks he wants, but since Dodd has already corrupted him, it’s a bittersweet revelation.
If you’ve ever seen PTA’s work, you know what you’re in for as far as technical prowess and cinematography. The Master is one of the most beautifully shot films of 2012, finding equal allure in a close up of an actor’s face as in wide crane shots of cracked desert or steady tilts over the open sea. It almost feels like it should be studied, not enjoyed, and that’s part of the reason I didn’t fall head over heels for this like many of my colleagues. There seems to be an iciness to Anderson’s creation, and since it isn’t instantly clear whether he actually has a dog in the proverbial fight (Freddie is just as morally bankrupt as Dodd, but in a different way), some of the film seems distant.
That said, many of the issues I have with the film wither in the shadows of the titanic performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. Jeremy Smith from AICN recently tweeted “There’s Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, and then there’s every other performance I’ve seen this year,” and I’m inclined to agree with him. Phoenix completely transforms into this broken, disturbed character, and Hoffman imbues Dodd with a laser-sharp confidence that is essential to perpetuating his power within The Cause. As much as this is a PTA film through and through, it’s also a showcase for these guys to give the best performances of their respective careers. The Master is a welcome start to a fall season that, if we’re lucky, will give us more like this as the year heads to a close. Until next time…