It’s a lofty statement, indeed, but it’s apt: With The Master, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker with a flawless filmography, has made his most challenging motion picture. The kind of film that’s abound with layered characters, intensely up-close-and-personal ventures into their psyches, a narrative that consistently defies expectations and predictability, and concludes without providing any firm answers for filmgoers to exit the theater with and use as comfort food throughout days to come.
Yes, such a description describes all of the singularly gifted Anderson’s work thus far, whether it’s the sprawling, unruly adult film industry drama Boogie Nights, the intricately woven and enchantingly messy Magnolia, or the ferociously cynical and searing period masterpiece There Will Be Blood. Set in a hauntingly rendered 1950 East Coast landscape,The Master, an enormously ambitious yet intimate battle of two men’s emotional fortitude shot on a 65MM canvas represents the filmmaker at his highest point of I’m-the-man panache. It’s the first of Anderson’s films that’s uniquely PTA, through and through, rather than a loving, semi-homage to role models like Martin Scorsese (Boogie Nights), Robert Altman (Magnolia), and Stanley Kubrick (There Will Be Blood).
One thing The Master is not, however, is a movie about Scientology, despite all of the pre-release speculation. There’s little doubt that the character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, one Lancaster Dodd, is heavily inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, and Dodd’s peaceful, subservient band of followers, The Cause, is modeled after Hubbard’s Dianetics subordinates, later known as Scientologists.
Rather than use his fascination with the self-started religion and construct an indictment of cult mentality or put the worshipping front and center, Anderson superbly takes the story of Hubbard and analyzes it from an outsider’s perspective. That drifter is Freddie Quell, a troubled, hard-boozing war veteran inhabited, not portrayed, by a rejuvenated and monstrous Joaquin Phoenix.
Blinded by women, alcohol, and his inner demons, Freddie walks through his post-battlefield life without a purpose, nor any loved ones to embrace, being that liquor killed his father, his mother’s in a mental institution, and the self-perceived love of his life is miles, and years, behind him. Sneaking onto a boat docked in New York City and occupied by Dodd and his crew one night, Freddie quickly connects to Lancaster, a.k.a. “Master,” and a complicated, bromantic relationship begins.
In Freddie Quell, Anderson has written an endlessly bewildering tornado of a man, one brought to vivid, combustible life by Phoenix, in a performance that immediately reminds viewers why his decision to end that whole I’m Still Here rapper shtick is a cinematic heaven-send. His right eye always squinted, shoulders firmly slumped downward, Freddie garbles words out of the side of his mouth, and those words typically aren’t productive.
Dodd, a charismatic leader with more than a hint of sub-surface rage, sees the tortured Freddie as both a live-wire buddy and a monumental task. On one hand, Freddie’s ride-or-die mentality, seen when he stomps out a gentleman who publicly questions Dodd’s philosophies, comes across to Master as endearing, but, as Dodd’s take-no-prisoners wife, Mary Sue (an excellent, quietly explosive Amy Adams), continually points out, there’s something off about Freddie. Something that’s dangerously toxic.
Though his two primary characters are richly defined, Anderson envelopes their man-to-man bond with subtle hints of unhealthiness. Whenever Freddie gets out of line, Dodd chastises him like a Homo sapien master would his misbehaving canine: “Freddie, stop! No!” Or, “This is not the way, naughty boy!” It’s a testament to Anderson’s stellar script that their fragile bond never feels less than double-sided in its affections, even when they’re at heated odds.
And there’s no greater boil-over moment than the dazzling sequence in which Freddie and Dodd are stuck in neighboring prison cells, and, like a human volcano, Phoenix erupts, kicking a toilet into pieces, bashing his head into steel, and practically foaming at the mouth before a reasonably collected, but just as commanding, Hoffman. It’s the scene that should be played when Phoenix walks up to that Academy Awards stage to accept his Best Actor statue (premature call or not).
By the film’s end, The Master is very clearly about the tragic bond shared by Freddie and Dodd, two guys bound together by a paralleled yearning for equal parts guidance and obedience yet star-crossed and destined for an uncomfortable resolution.
Only, Anderson isn’t the type of storyteller who’s interested in neatly spelling things out; he’s the pedigree of filmmaker who dispenses a multifaceted protagonist’s back-story through a patient and mesmerizing interrogation, or “processing,” sequence, where Dodd beats Freddie’s resolve down with probing repetition (“Do your past failures bother you? Do your past failures bother you?”) and pulls out painful yet warmly recalled memories for The Master’s audience to digest and process however he or she may please. Even though, moments before, Dodd warns Freddie, in the midst of inviting him into The Cause, “Your memories are not invited.”
To those wise enough to enter into The Master’s confounding world of damaged souls, not to mention willing enough to succumb to its hypnotic power, Anderson might as well have started the film off with a card reading, “Your acceptance of modern-day Hollywood’s spoon-feeding ways is not welcomed here.” As much an example of visual poetry as it is a showcase for stunning cinematography and meticulous direction, Anderson’s towering film, the year’s best to date, rewards its viewers with the gift of thought-provoking, mind-gripping deliberation.
The answers are there, somewhere. One just needs to accept the director’s bold challenge, forget about what other filmmakers are currently doing, and experience the enthralling enigma.