Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
Having written and directed two masterpieces, Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, and three near-masterpieces, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and Hard Eight, a new Paul Thomas Anderson film will always be firmly planted in all my “most-anticipated film” lists. Rumors of The Master being PTA’s take on the early days of Scientology (with the great Philip Seymour Hoffman playing an L. Ron Hubbard-like figure) had me hooked from the beginning. The release of The Master became more of a cinema event in my mind with each piece of the puzzle being added: Joaquin Phoenix returning to the cinema, musical genius Jonny Greenwood writing the score, and that mesmerizing teaser trailer where Joaquin and Jonny blew my mind (I must have watched it about 20 times). Other than the loose framework of a Scientology inspired storyline, The Master was a big mystery that I couldn’t wait to take a look at.
First, the Scientology bashing hype that preceded The Master should be toned down before one sees the film. Those looking for Anderson to tear apart this religion birthed from the mind of a science-fiction writer may be disappointed. Anderson is far too good of a filmmaker to take a shot at every pillar supporting their belief one-by-one. Tenets of the Cause (The Master’s “Scientology”) are never clearly explained and don’t need to be. Anderson is interested in the relationships needed to build one man’s bizarre writings into a full-fledged religious movement. This decision enables The Master to be richer, more interesting, and more complex than a straightforward satire of an easy target.
The Master’s first half hour introduces a complete lost cause named Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). While it can be assumed that his issues existed long before joining the Navy and fighting in the Pacific, the horrors of World War II exasperated his problems. He moves with twitches and talks in mumbles. He is inappropriately obsessed with sex. He has a short fuse that easily resorts to violence when questioned by authority. He is in alcoholic who uses paint thinner and photography chemicals in his cocktails. An inability to hold down a job logically follows. Poor Freddy fought to protect his county but has been left behind in society’s fringes during peacetime. A man in such a dire condition would clearly be vulnerable to any group, religion, or cult’s friendly invitations, which is where the Cause enters the picture.
The film’s “L. Ron Hubbard” is a man named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who claims to be “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, and above all, a man.” When we meet Dodd, it is easy to understand why so many choose to follow him. He speaks in a way that sounds important and intelligent. He is a raconteur with a plethora of stories. He entertains his guests with song and dance. He makes all his friends feel wanted and loved. And Dodd instantly welcomes Freddy into his inner-circle, forming a “master and protégé” relationship that centers the film.
Other than to the desperate and lonely, like Freddy Quell, or the wealthy and bored, who continually give Dodd money and invite his entourage into their homes, Dodd's charisma is clearly superficial. It is here where Anderson subtly pokes holes in the Cause’s logic. To the audience, he is more of a pompous attention whore than the well-intentioned genius his followers paint him as. Dodd’s self-assuredness begins to crack with every criticism of the Cause thrown his way. The methods that seem plausibly helpful at first begin to look absurd with the more time spent in Dodd’s presence. He is hack, a charismatic hack with a talent for recruiting followers. Freddy Quell becomes his most devoted follower, though his instability leads people in the Cause other than Dodd to question his commitment.
At its core, The Master is a mystery about what links these two trouble men together so closely. What is it that Dodd sees in Freddy that his other followers do not? Why does Freddy, a man always troubled by authority, become Dodd’s “guinea pig” so freely? Many questions enter the mind while watching The Master, and Anderson never gives the audience an easy answer.
This film benefits from an interesting plot, which I believe gets better the longer one has to mull it over. It is also a picture worthy of viewing on its technical aspects alone. With every new film, Paul Thomas Anderson proves why he is one of our preeminent filmmakers. The Master is a beautiful film that can fill you with awe in one moment and discomfort in the next. From the early brilliant images of Freddy at sea in the Navy, working in lettuce fields as a migrant worker, and snapping lifeless portraits at a department store, you instantly know that the man behind the picture is a rare talent. Brilliant images continue from beginning to end. I believe The Master is the kind of film that can be thoroughly enjoyed without sound, like Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, because the visuals are so strong.
And like There Will Be Blood, Jonny Greenwood’s amazing score adds more meaning to every visual. Whatever scene we are looking at, such as the distant mountains in an empty desert, the beautiful blue wake behind an ocean steamer, or the straightforward close-ups during an interrogation, is given a sense of uneasiness by Jonny’s music. The out-of-rhythm mix of percussion and strings always tells you that something is not right with the Cause no matter how much Freddy smiles or how friendly Dodd seems. There is a feel that a clock is ticking throughout the film, but Anderson never reveals what it is ticking toward, which is all the more frustrating, and, in a strange way, exciting.
Of course, the cast of heavyweight actors is The Master’s strongest selling point. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are so different but equally memorable. Phoenix, who has returned from his hoax retirement in full force, is terrifying and heart breaking as a man constantly on the edge. You spend the movie afraid of him and afraid for him, wanting his Freddy to find some sense of comfort in his life but distrusting the route in which he achieves it (if ever at all). Hoffman’s performance is less “in your face” but just as effective. He completely embodies this man so intensely full of himself that you question whether or not he knows how much his beliefs sound like bullshit. Whether he is a true believer or a con man just as lost as his followers is somewhat unclear. These are two unbelievably complex performances and absolute joys to behold. There are many films yet to come out in 2012, and films I have yet to see, but it would be shocking if someone other than these two takes home the Best Actor Oscar. Now, which of the two would be more deserving is ripe for serious debate.
Amy Adams is also excellent as Dodd’s wife. Like Hoffman’s performance, the exterior and interior of her character seem to vary greatly. She is a sweet and motherly woman on the outside with a dark intensity underneath that suddenly comes through when the Cause’s legitimacy is questioned. From top to bottom, the acting in The Master is better than you’ll see in most other films.
In the day since I saw The Master, my enthusiasm for the film has grown. It is one of those films that is a little difficult to process right when the credits roll (very similar to There Will Be Blood). But after taking a day to think to myself and talk to others about it, I like the film more and more. You have to accept that this will not present the founding of Scientology (or something similar) and answer all your questions in a neat 140-minute package. It does, however, show the kinds of personalities and relationships necessary to build this kind of movement. And that story is fascinating, especially when told by people like Paul Thomas Anderson, Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams.
Whenever my second viewing of The Master comes, I am sure I will find new things to appreciate and appreciate that which stood out before in different ways (the mark at the bottom of this post may get bumped from an 8 to a 9). Going in to the theater, this film was a mystery to me. Now that I know what to expect, I am prepared to dive deeper into what PTA has presented to us. Hopefully I get to do so sooner rather than later.
Mark it 9.