Rarely has a film premiered with such intense anticipation from movie buffs as The Master. There are a number of reasons why. Paul Thomas Anderson as perfect batting average of films so far (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood) and has taken to waiting 4-5 years between movies which generates that Stanley Kubrick style of fevered expectation every time that he picks up a camera. Then there’s the fact that the movie had to be financed independently by billionaire since no moneyman in Hollywood would touch the controversial project that may or may not have been about Scientology. It’s a heavy weight for any film to bear and thankfully The Master isn’t crushed under its own hype. This isn’t the Scientology expose many were expecting though, nor is it another work of grandstanding filmmaking from PTA. Nope, the movie is more of a delicate character piece that floats between two lost souls with a subtle build towards a remarkable emotional payoff. Some will love it, some will haaaaate it, but no one will be able to brush it off. If nothing else, it’s the most ambitious and artistically audacious American film of the year.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie a WW2 veteran who in the opening scenes stumbles through his last few weeks in service by getting trunk on torpedo juice moonshine and humping sandcastle women he built on the beach. So, he’s not well. That much is clear. He leaves the army with severe PTSD and alcoholism. Attempts to hold a job as a department store photographer and farm labor fail miserably. Eventually he stumbles onto a boat and passes out, unaware that it belongs to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, an author who invented his own religion called “The Cause” with a small and obscenely loyal group of followers (including his wife played by Amy Adams who may or may not be pulling the strings). Dodd sees something of himself in Freddie’s lost soul and inexplicably wants to save him in exchange for some more of that sweet homemade moonshine. Dodd’s techniques involve bizarre psychological evaluations and tests that seem as much a result of the leader’s desire to hear perverse secrets as any attempt to help others. A bizarre psychological battle goes on between the two men, with Freddie refusing to submit to any form of control and Dodd in awe of Freddie’s almost anarchistic approach to life.
That tension between the two men is the subject of The Master. Yes there are themes flowing through about the struggle of soldiers to adapt to society and the gentle mind control found in any man-made religion (aka all of them). That material is undeniably intriguing and very much there to be studied and enjoyed by the inevitably obsessed fans. There are probably deep readings possible in the material that could be tied to any number of elemental themes. However, Anderson’s focus is primarily on his central relationship and it is a fascinating one. Almost all of Anderson’s films until this point have been about relationships between fathers and sons or surrogate fathers and sons. The Master initially appears that way as well when Dodd takes Freddie under his wing to essentially replace his own skeptical son. However as the film continues and the mutual obsessions deepens and becomes more complex, almost matures into a perverse love story of sorts. There’s no overt sexuality on display, but the obsession and war between the two men stretches beyond mere friendly admiration.
Those two performances are nothing short of astounding. Phoenix disappears into Freddie, delivering wildly unpredictable and possibly damaged mind with his expected level of intensity. From his constantly uncomfortable posture to the unexpected outbursts, it’s always clear that something is wrong with the character and yet in the actor’s capable hands that quality never feels forced or overdone. Phoenix is matched by Philip Seymour Hoffman in an equally impressive turn in the exact opposite style. Hoffman is eerily cold, controlled, and calm as Dodd, desperately trying to give off the impression of authority and only occasionally revealing cracks in his armor. Adams is just as strong as Dodd’s manipulative wife with hints of secretly being in control of it all. The rest of the cast are excellent as well, though none have as much to do. That’s a PTA staple though, he’s one of those filmmakers who seems to be able to get the best out of his actors no matter what the role or context (don’t forget, under Anderson’s tutelage both Mark Wahlberg and Adam Sandler gave performances that generated Oscar buzz). He’s of course in total control of the movie. His screenplay feels like a meandering collection of scenes in search of structure until it all finally combines in the end. His visuals are remarkable, shooting in the near extinct 70mm film format to create images of deep focus and vibrant colors with a sort of vintage Life magazine photo feel of heightened realism. The format is usually used for grand epics, but Anderson makes it intimate and somehow that works. Oh, and the near constant brooding score from Radiohead guitarist is just as important to the tone of this movie as it was in There Will Be Blood.
There’s a laundry list of things to praise about The Master, a grand period epic that’s most powerful scenes are two small two-headed exchanges between Phoenix and Hoffman. Big and small, intellectual and mysterious, intimately character driven yet filled with grand ambitious themes, The Master is filled with seeming contradictions. Yet, that seems entirely appropriate given the combative/loving central relationship. It’s easily Anderson’s most complex and enigmatic movie, one that seems to demand multiple viewings to fully process. It’s worth seeing for the central performances alone (a scene in which Hoffman interrogates Phoenix for the first time is as good as anything the actors and director have ever done), while the Anderson creates a remarkably moving and beautiful cinematic package to contain those acting presents. 70mm gets a victory lap in the digital age and film fans get a movie to be chewed on over booze and/or coffee for months. It’s a brilliant piece of work perhaps left too tantalizingly open to instantly be labeled a masterpiece like the some of the director’s previous efforts, but one easily deserving of all the praise and dedicated analysis inevitably coming it’s way. See it as soon as you can. The hype will be huge and haters will arrive purely out of opposition to the praise.
Quite frankly, everything
It will be a little too obtuse for some.