Film Review: “The Master”

by Jason LeRoy on September 21, 2012

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in THE MASTER

starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek, Laura Dern, Patty McCormack

written and directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

MPAA: Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language

Paul Thomas Anderson continues his career-long exploration of individuals versus movements and charismatic leaders clashing with new acolytes to unpredictable, unsettling effect in The Master. Whether it be Dirk Diggler finding acceptance within and then rebelling against Jack Horner’s extended porn family in Boogie Nights, April Grace’s intrepid reporter daring to question the aggressively self-assured Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia, or Daniel Plainview begrudgingly appeasing young preacher Eli Sunday and his congregation in There Will Be Blood, Anderson has always been fascinated by this dynamic. And in The Master, he addresses it more directly (yet also obliquely) than ever before: a man modeled on one of the most influential leaders of the last century takes on the challenge of a lifetime by attempting to convert a man whose very nature defies everything he teaches.

When Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is discharged from the Navy at the end of World War II, he and the rest of the seamen are informed that they could suffer from postwar nervous conditions which won’t be understood by the civilians to whom they are returning. But Freddie’s strange tendencies and primitive habits seem more like a preexisting condition. Even among the other servicemen, Freddie is the one most likely to provoke concerned stares and murmurs of “What the hell is wrong with him?” The rest of them have the war to blame, but Freddie is just an id-driven weirdo who makes people (the audience included) profoundly uncomfortable.

After he returns to civilian life, Freddie becomes a drifter whose wildly irresponsible personality keeps pushing him farther and farther toward society’s margins, from working as a portrait photographer in a department store to a farmhand in Salinas, always one disastrous blowup away from the next thing. But then one night, while drifting through San Francisco (because mentally disturbed drifters are certainly in our wheelhouse), Freddie happens upon a shimmering party boat gliding across the bay, the echoes of its celebration dimly piercing the foggy darkness. Is it one of Heklina’s early S.S. Trannyshack expeditions? If only. Freddie manages to stow away on the ship just before it cruises semi-ominously under the Golden Gate Bridge, and awakes the next morning to discover that he has apparently had a drunken night of revelry with one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his fifth and finest performance for Anderson).

Dodd is the author and leader of a movement known as The Cause, and his congregants refer to him as Master. He is joined at all times by his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), son Val (Jesse Plemons, continuing to quietly break the Friday Night Lights young actor curse), and daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers). In an attempt to make intellectual meaning of postwar life in America, Dodd has devised a system of beliefs and practices rooted in the power of the human mind. He teaches that we are not animals, that we must renounce these ingrained animal habits and step into the transformational power of our full intellectual selves. He accomplishes this by breaking people down through “processing,” an increasingly intense and invasive series of personal questions.

Rather than resist or struggle through Dodd’s processing, Freddie happily submits to it and asks for more when it is done, as though they’ve just played a delightful game. Dodd sees something in Freddie and becomes quite taken with him, gradually making him a right-hand man as a means of keeping him close; if The Cause can work on someone as antithetical to its claims as him, then Dodd will have triumphed. As for Freddie, he responds to Dodd’s interest and affirmation as a dog would, developing an instant sense of unexamined loyalty and violently defending Dodd against his critics. And despite the growing concerns of his wife and children, Dodd continues to invest in Freddie regardless of his frequently erratic behavior.

A richly multilayered allegory as much as it is a dysfunctional love story between two troubled men, The Master is dense and meticulous work. Far closer in spirit to There Will Be Blood than his emotionally operatic earlier work, it continues to build the case for Anderson as the greatest American director of his generation. He has always been an especially gifted actors’ director, and the performances he elicits from his two leading men are career-best moments for each of them. Phoenix taps into a volatile energy far more troubling than anything from his I’m Still Here period, reminding us that he’s been doing this far longer than his heir apparent Michael Shannon. This is explosively self-lacerating work.

Hoffman, resembling a wise walrus (perhaps in a nod to “The Walrus and The Carpenter”?), unleashes the full spectrum of his staggering dramatic skill. He is nothing short of virtuosic. And Amy Adams gives an expertly realized and calibrated turn as Dodd’s supportive wife; pay close attention to the two scenes of Dodd and Peggy behind closed doors, because they speak volumes. Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography overflows with breathtakingly composed shots, given full justice in the film’s much-vaunted 70mm format, while Jonny Greenwood provides yet another jarringly dissonant score.

The Master is not always an easy film to watch, nor could it be accused of being a fun time at the movies; the pace is slow and deliberate, lacking much of a traditional plot or a strong sense of closure. And yet, you are constantly aware of being in the presence of greatness. The Master requires that you pay attention, but rewards close reading with an endlessly debatable array of details and observations. It will leave you pondering its characters and themes for days afterward.

The Master opens in San Francisco today.

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