(Originally posted at www.tkatthemovies.com)
Before it release, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master appeared to be many things: a critical assessment of Scientology-esque cult, an examination of post-war reassimilation, a visual treat shot on 70mm film and an acting tour de force pitting Joaquin Phoenix against Philip Seymour Hoffman. The movie delivers on all of these levels, but it defies easy categorization and is much greater than the sum of its parts. Anderson’s first since 2007’s There Will Be Blood, The Master is the director’s most challenging, mysterious and disorienting film. The movie and its characters refuse to explain themselves, making for an intellectually compelling and emotionally rich experience.
Phoenix gives the performance of his career as Freddie Quell, a naval veteran barely getting by in post-World War II America. Always drinking his homemade liquor made of paint thinner and various other makeshift ingredients, he struggles to find stable work or healthy relationships, thanks to his vicious temper, naughty antics and comprehensive lack of social skills. But he thinks he might fit in with the Cause, Lancaster Dodd’s (Hoffman) movement focused on an ability to revisit and perhaps alter past lives through guided meditation. Lancaster takes Freddie in as a protégé, inspired to reform the lost soul’s animalistic ways.
There are few significant plot points to speak of, but perhaps more surprisingly for a P.T. Anderson film, there aren’t any virtuosic crane or dolly shots I can recall, the sort of cinematic flourishes that pervade the filmmaker’s previous work. Instead, the craft here is subtle, likely to reveal itself more with multiple viewings and careful study. Gorgeous compositions and wide-angle lenses amplify and distort the spaces of the various locations. And more apparently, the film makes potent use of carefully lighted close-ups, examining the contours of Freddie’s face, his asymmetrical nostrils and jutting jaw. Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro) have used their cinematic tools to accentuate the physicality of the central performances.
Phoenix performs with his whole body. This is especially evident when his frustrated character violently hits himself, but throughout the film, Freddie moves so distinctly, slightly hunched over with hands on his hips, elbows pointing out. He’s the sort of animal that Lancaster wants humans to transcend, a creature who solves every problem with a beating and is always thinking of sex. Particularly projected in 70 mm, the close-ups highlight Phoenix’s face as a richly emotional canvas. Undergoing one of Lancaster’s tests, Freddie is asked to answer a series of challenging personal questions, all without blinking. The pain, focus and frustration in his eyes speak to the power of Phoenix’s performance and Anderson’s understanding of screen acting.
Phoenix’s Freddie has an opposite, equal partner in Hoffman’s Lancaster, an intellectual both drawn to and disappointed by his protégé. Hoffman lends the character the charisma and conviction needed to sell such a belief system. He is fatherly and saintly, responding to problems with measured reasoning. But perhaps most impressively, Hoffman’s performance never condescends, despite what many viewers will recognize as the foolishness and fickleness of his teachings. And the same goes for Phoenix’s Freddie, who seems less like a laughable freak and more a lost soul resisting guidance. P.T. Anderson focuses on probing the psychological depths of these characters rather than casting judgment, and the sympathetic acting is essential to making this work.
For the most part, The Master is uninterested in the specifics of the Cause, yet it’s a thoughtful reflection on why people are drawn to religions and rituals in the first place. Early on, the film firmly establishes Freddie as a social misfit, fighting customers as a portrait photographer and running as fast as he can after allegedly poisoning a man. It’s clear why Freddie would want to tag along with Lancaster. With the Cause, he is treated seriously, as something worth saving, and through meditation, his past and present can be overturned and transcended. The Master doesn’t necessarily validate religion, but it takes the time to understand why people go looking for answers.
The film also implicitly addresses the notion of extremism, how something relatively harmless could turn into something violent. When a skeptic publicly questions the Cause, Freddie’s first instinct is to throw a tomato like a kid, his second to follow the man to his house and beat him like an animal. Though the movement itself is founded upon the peaceful teachings of one man, Freddie has the potential to bend it to his understanding of the world. Examining the universal by honing in on the personal, The Master speaks volumes about the flexibility of belief and practice by comparing and contrasting two different men.
The Master never answers all of the questions it asks, and it often refuses to even clarify its questions. Viewers will walk away with various interpretations and observations. In this review, I did not have the time to discuss how the film touches upon posttraumatic stress disorder, whether Freddie struggles to adjust because war was so terrible or because it felt safer than the rest of the world. Other viewers might be more interested in the sexual subtext, how Freddie desperately needs to get laid. Though I took so much away from my first viewing, I can only imagine I’ve scratched the surface of a rich and complex work. And much like its protagonist, the movie is unpredictable and unhinged, keeping audiences hanging on every high-resolution frame.