Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” is a powerfully acted, hypnotizing and, ultimately, disjointed love story between two men searching for some kind of meaning in their lives, something to fill a deep chasm they seem to share. There is nothing easy about this film or the characters that inhabit it. There are questions, memories and dark urges for acceptance, love and understanding, none of which is mastered in any kind of true catharsis.
The first of the two men is World War II Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). In his opening scenes, Freddie is seen on a beach, somewhat distant from his fellow sailors who wrestle along the shore and share a manly camaraderie. Freddie clearly is not right in the head, as he frantically chops up coconuts with a machete, even hitting his own hand one time to see how it feels, and later performing sexual acts on himself and on a sand woman built by the other sailors.
Freddie is distant from the others, and still maintains this intellectual and cognitive distance from people after he returns to normal society. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, but Freddie’s illness is multifaceted. He concocts and drinks his own dubious brand of hooch from whatever happens to be lying around, including paint thinner, and has frequent outbursts of violence and rage. He zones in and out of reality and has trouble coping with post-war society.
Everything changes when he meets Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a charming, eloquent writer and philosopher who is in the process of developing a new method of self-realization and understanding, a cult-like religious movement called “The Cause.”
On the run from an incident involving his dangerous homemade liquor, Freddie stumbles upon a ship carrying Dodd and a group of his followers. They are having a party, and Freddie sneaks aboard the ship. When he wakes up the following morning, he shares an intimate conversation with Dodd, the first of many in what becomes a dark, disturbing and revelatory relationship between two men who we come to realize are simultaneously opposite and alike, different and the same.
There really is not a lot more to Anderson’s story than that, as the film becomes a series of vague, dreamlike scenes from then on detailing the complex dynamic between Freddie and Dodd, each the other one’s master and protégé at any given time. The muddled nature of “The Master” is a weakness of the film, but never does it drag the film beyond wonder of the whole thing. I could not help but yearn for more coherence and emotional sound and fury, but I respect and, to a degree, understand Anderson’s restraint.
Another important character in the film is Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), a cold, quietly controlling woman who plays the sweet wife to Dodd, leader of” The Cause,” but in reality rules the roost. In one crucial scene, we are shown that another master-subservient relationship exists in the film, aside from the one between Freddie and Dodd, and Anderson’s title begins to take on an endless array of meanings that bubble and pop in “The Master,” but never explode. What happens is more of a narrative implosion.
Through these three key characters, Freddie, Dodd and Peggy, Anderson continues his tradition of breaking through expectation and tearing down façade to reach the raw humanity that exists within all of us. He also takes a compulsive interest in the dynamic of families and surrogate families. In all of his previous films, this theme has shown up in some form, and here it is again, six films down the road.
Like John C. Reilly’s character in “Hard Eight,” Eddie Adams in “Boogie Nights,” Barry Egan in “Punch-Drunk Love” and Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood,” Freddie Quell is a lost soul searching for completion, acceptance and love. Anderson’s characters lack or desert their biological family to seek out a new one. Some of these characters make it through the darkness, others do not. Whether Freddie ever manages to find solace in his life you will have to decide for yourself.
As in the past, Anderson skillfully manages to maintain a steady momentum throughout — the man is a filmmaking wizard, and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. captures Anderson’s vision with breathtaking visual panache.
There is not a moment of boredom throughout the 137 minute running time of “The Master,” and although there are no giant set pieces, such as the exploding oil rig in “There Will Be Blood,” Anderson’s last picture, there are scenes as disquieting and intense here between Phoenix and Hoffman, who take acting to its highest level, and then push a little bit further. Enough has been said about these two guys, so I will leave it at that.
All of these elements brought together make “The Master” a must for all film lovers. Despite my quibbles with the narrative, I simply cannot bring myself to not recommend Anderson’s sixth and most challenging work, and still sleep soundly at night.