Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson (screenplay)
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Laura Dern
The latest film from mythic American auteur Paul Thomas Anderson is an ambitious, beautiful mess. With 2007’s There Will Be Blood, he announced himself as one of the greatest working directors, altering and unhinging the film community much in the same way that that movie’s protagonist alters and unhinges himself and the landscape.
The Master is both a historical continuation and thematic sibling to that film, which concluded in 1927. Anderson skips over The Great Depression and World War II, and picks up at the dawn of the 1950s, in a glamorous age of excess and social repression. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a disturbed Naval veteran, does not belong to this era. He is too overtly sexualized and too much of an alcoholic to fit in with the tidy, polished department store where he works briefly as a portrait photographer at the beginning of the movie.
Freddie also can’t seem to fit in working in the fields with immigrants; he is accused of poisoning an old man with an unholy concoction that he himself drinks regularly. It isn’t until he drunkenly stumbles onto a boat party and sets out to sea with a cult that he finds his place, if only briefly.
Anderson is fascinated by religious ideology, and in this film and its masterful predecessor explores the idea of the self in the context of an enigmatic cause. In this case that cause is The Cause, led by the stoic, mesmerizing Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He is first seen as a face in the crowd on his boat party, but he is framed so that we notice him and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) dancing. The way he courts Freddie and personally tries to tame him is at the core of the movie.
Of course The Cause was being compared to Scientology long before The Master hit theaters. There are undeniable parallels, but going into the movie to laugh smugly at the controversial religion would be a mistake. Anderson’s treatment of The Cause at times appears cultish, like during a dinner dance where all the women suddenly appear fully nude, but also comes off as almost sincere sometimes. Freddie’s first “consultation” is one of the most powerful scenes of the year, showing Dodd’s ability to control and manipulate as well as bring out and talk about trauma.
This treatment is bullshit, to be sure, but it has an effect on Freddie. No matter how destructive his alcoholism makes him or how infuriated he becomes with Dodd’s mixed messages, he is drawn back in for most of the movie. Anderson frames most of their conversations in tight close-up, emphasizing each man looking in a different direction but also, when he pans out, showing that they’re looking at each other. Hoffman and especially Phoenix play these polar characters perfectly, offering up two of the finest performances of the year by far.
So what exactly makes The Master a mess? There Will Be Blood offered an ideological war; a frontier battle between a capitalist and an evangelical preacher. It was the ultimate showdown of The Self and The Group, because in the end both were portrayed as stark, raving mad. Anderson was aided in that movie with a fantastic framework, Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, that he molded to his own artistic whims.
He remains unparalleled as a visual stylist in this movie, and he never misses a beat in that regard. From the haunting close-up of Peggy as her eyes change to black in Freddie’s imagination to shots of serene blue water just as it has been churned by the boat, this is one of the most visually lush movies in recent memory. However, The Master’s screenplay is decidedly weaker, made more evident by its heavier reliance on conversation.
The foundation of the entire premise is the failure of Freddie and Dodd to ultimately see eye to eye, mostly because Dodd’s only reason for being interested in Freddie is that he remembers him from another lifetime. Their final meeting suggests that Dodd could in some way be in love with Freddie, though he veils almost all his intentions in theatricality to disguise them.
When the two men inevitably part ways in London, Freddie returns to the beach, where we first met him. In the beginning he was with a group of men making the figure of a nude woman in the sand and pretending to have sex with it. The final shot is of him nestled up to a similar figure in the sand, his only idea of happiness just waiting to be swept away.