The Master, auteur Paul Thomas Anderson’s minimalist drama about a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his troubled and troubling acolyte (Joaquin Phoenix), is Anderson’s first film since 2007′s There Will Be Blood, and it’s easy to see the stylistic similarities between the two films humming underneath the surface: Two strong-willed male characters, as alike internally as they are disparate on the surface, set on course to collide with each other. Keep the conflict close and very personal, but paint it on a huge, sprawling canvas. Don’t be afraid of unlikable, complicated protagonists.
Simple stories. Complex, textured characters. Superlative actors. Anderson excels at working in this space.
There’s nothing mundane in the sparse plot structure and complicated character arcs of The Master, nor is there much of the conventional to be found in the score (by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who also scored There Will Be Blood). Greenwood knows when to overbear and crowd menacingly, when to threaten or allude, and perhaps most importantly, when to shut up and let the silence have its say. But Anderson’s use of duality of form between the simple and the complex is perhaps at its richest when he places tautly constructed dialog flush against sumptuous, majestic cinematography. No clutter. Just lens, light and shadow working flawlessly in concert, revealing the topography of humanity and personality buried within the lines and planes of a human face. And lordy, the skin tones in this film will make you swoon.
The Master is a story about the relationship that forms between Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a traumatized and unstable ex-Navy man who has a certain harrowing intensity about him that makes him equal parts disturbing and fascinating; and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a breezily charming intellectual and leader of “The Cause,” a cult-like, Scientology-esque group exploring ideas Dodd has been developing around traumas in past lives carrying forward, reincarnation, and, loosely, even time travel. As opposite as the two men appear at their first meeting, Dodd immediately recognizes a side of himself (albeit the animalistic side) in Freddie. If you expect The Master to be a scathing slam of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, a fast-paced thriller filled with danger and intrigue and car chases, then you are likely to be bored and disappointed. If you go into this film expecting to see an a tightly woven, exquisitely drawn character and relationship study rendered through frame upon frame of cinematic beauty, then yes, it works very well.
Fine, fine, you say. Very well. But does The Master function strongly as story? Anderson is sometimes criticized for lacking warmth, for approaching his films with such a technical, clinical eye that his films lose heart. I don’t necessarily disagree with this, but neither do I view this as a detriment. For me, what this means is that Anderson doesn’t seek to shock or titillate, to make you feel angry or sad or happy. The pleasure of watching The Master lies not in judging Lancaster Dodd or Freddie Quell as either good or bad, nor is it derivative of relating especially to one or the other of the two men. The characters simply are who they are, and we are there as silent witnesses to their story.
But we are also there to immerse ourselves in the lush visual world that Anderson’s created here. Imagine being in a small art gallery, just black walls and these stunningly rich and beautiful moving images, the world reduced to nothing more than these canvases and your visceral reaction to them. They wash over you, one after another after another, like being bombarded by a vibrant visual mantra. Soaking in the visuals of this film is hypnotic, but the overall effect is very different than that of watching Tree of Life or To the Wonder, where the poetic abstractness clings to the imagery, lending it a shifting, elusive quality.
Here, the more literal structure beneath the visuals feels prim and discordant and even prickly; Anderson keeps you at a polite distance, lulling you along into a bit of complacency about what to expect and feel until wham! He nails you with these scenes of Dodd grilling Freddie in what one imagines has to be a sort of rendering of Scientology’s “audits,” and it’s so intense you’re ready to confess your own innermost secrets, but then Freddie breaks before you can, and it’s mesmerizing to watch. And then you think, “Goddamn, I forgot what an amazing actor Joaquin Phoenix is. Thank god he got over that whole ‘I’m Still Here’ crap.” Hoffman is great in this film too, don’t get me wrong, but Phoenix, wow.
Much of the execution of The Master as it alludes to Scientology is deliberately vague, as if Scientology is less like the pink elephant in the room, and more like that weird distant cousin no one wants to get stuck sitting next to at the required all-family gatherings. This takes the focus off nit-picking over the accuracy with which Anderson has captured and revealed Scientoloy, and instead forces the focus onto these specific characters in this specific story. The balance between the characters of Freddie and Dodd, the contrasts and the similarities of their choices, creates a rich and interesting dichotomy to explore. Freddie isn’t so much the opposite of Dodd as he is representative of the “animalistic” side of Dodd’s own nature, and of Dodd’s own attempts, through the ideas he’s exploring with The Cause, to better control and cage those aspects of himself.
Strong female characters are rather scarce in The Master, the exception being Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife, Peggy, who’s much more a strong driving force behind-the-scenes than her quiet, relatively meek and subservient outer demeanor would indicate. But as Freddie serves to underscore Dodd’s hidden issues, Peggy also exists to be a female character who is both in close proximity to Freddie, and is the opposite of how he thinks of women generally. Freddie is not a man given greatly to respecting the fairer sex, but Peggy’s manner and bearing demand it of him, whether he likes it or not.
The Master is not a broadly accessible work, in spite of its visual beauty, its appropriately discordant score, and some truly superb, awards-season worthy performances. This is the kind of film that the vast majority of critics will sink their teeth into and praise, while much of the movie-going public will likely just sit there befuddled. Critics and cinephiles, though, will oooh and ahhh over the film’s sheer technical proficiency and stunning beauty and will revel in Hoffman and Phoenix, who are both just superb.
As Dodd, Hoffman evokes the charisma and passion and egocentric worldview of a first-class charlatan and cult leader. Dodd isn’t evil, really; he’s just a very smart, creative, intellectual sort of fellow who had these ideas and found, perhaps rather to his own surprise at first, that other people would listen to what he had to say and even follow him. And he’s not a reluctant leader, but he is a flawed one; it’s his own deep-seated flaws, not Freddie, that will ultimately be his undoing if he cannot wrestle them down. As for Phoenix, he’s an absolute wonder to watch as Freddie. There aren’t many actors who could take a character who’s inherently so repellant and unlikable and somehow make him sympathetic. Phoenix acts this part with every fiber of his being, from his tight, pent up body language, to the way he uses the sharp, angular lines of his face to great advantage, to the manic, inappropriate and disturbing energy he radiates through the screen.
Like a master sculptor, Anderson works in negative space, allowing his actors, through their choices and interactions, to define who they are by scraping away vague chunks of shapeless clay to reveal the forms hidden within. Anderson doesn’t make it easy for you or hold you hand through the rough patches; he politely but firmly steers you through the intricacies of this dance, accompanying his players as they interact with each other, forcing us to meet him halfway so that we might get to the richness that lies underneath the film’s deceptively simplistic surface. The Master is at once a complex, complicated, intricately textured character study, and a meticulous, thoughtful exercise in pushing and refining technique in order to achieve something extraordinary. And if you can find the patience to sit with it, both the journey and ultimate destination are simply sublime.