Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson
Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons
How long is The Master? 137 minutes.
What is The Master rated? R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language.
Processing The Difficult Questions
Despite Paul Thomas Anderson’s first four movies being excellent, There Will Be Blood marked a significant change for the creator of Magnolia and Boogie Nights. It turned him from a writer-director into a filmmaker. With The Master, Anderson continues this journey by showing his rare and impressive understanding of film as an art form — how the interplay of dialogue, cinematography, acting, and score can combine to create a visceral and virtually transcendent experience both in an individual scene (or even a single frame) and consistently throughout the entire running time.
Like the great directors, and I would give Paul Thomas Anderson that designation, he manages to transport us into The Master mentally and emotionally. He sends us not into a fantasy world, but into a psychological one. The mixture of his wonderful visuals and script, Jonny Greenwood’s hypnotic score, and Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography produces a dizzying, haunting, sad, uncomfortable atmosphere that traps the audience and sticks with you long after the film ends — in the best possible way.
Set in the 1950s, though possessing an “outside of time” feel, The Master stars Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a Naval veteran and alcoholic struggling to find himself after (and presumably before and during) World War II by doing odd jobs and running away from his problems. During one of his benders, he encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a “writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all else… a man just like you” and his obsessively dedicated wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). Lancaster has numerous followers for his belief system called The Cause which includes elements such as past life regression and ‘processing.’ He takes an immediate liking to the troubled young man and strives to bring him into the fold. While Freddie has a dog-like devotion to Lancaster, his own instability makes him unpredictable and dangerous — to the eventual concern of Peggy.
Much has been made about The Master‘s connection to Scientology, but watching it as an allegory for that belief system or its birth is missing the point. The Cause, or the “Scientology-esque” philosophy espoused by the Dodds, is merely a vessel by which the film travels. The Master‘s really an existential voyage where The Cause, alcohol, sex, and loyalty serve as poor substitutes to fill the emptiness of lost souls. The film is about characters more than condemnation, relationships more than religion, and a study of those people who are unable to become part of society.
The Master is also an actors’ showcase, and the three leads give truly remarkable performances. As expected, Hoffman is terrific. He brings a real verve and love of life in his portrayal of “cult” leader Lancaster Dodd. There’s a genuine joy and sense of self-satisfaction when he comes up with his latest off-the-cuff lie, as well as frustration such as when someone points out an issue with his latest book. One can easily understand why so many people are willing to follow him, and his platonic love of Freddie feels real. We never know exactly what he sees in the wayward lad, but it’s impossible in real life to define such a connection. Without turning her into a gullible rube, Adams gives Peggy an almost eerie and fanatical devotion to Dodd and the philosophy, which explains why she is willing to look past his transgressions and shows the power The Cause has over its believers.
But the movie rides on Phoenix. I’ve never been a particular fan of his, but he gives a revelatory performance as Freddie. Not bright enough to understand what’s going on, Freddie is an id-ruled character, yet Phoenix keeps his fear and intensity quietly simmering throughout every scene … at least until he becomes unleashed. Anderson uses Freddie as the main character to great effect, and he lets the audience share in his confusion, disorientation, and lack of control over everything happening around him. This might be best seen in an early “processing” sequence between Freddie and Lancaster that becomes a truly intense cinematic moment, even though it just contains the asking of questions.
Overall, The Master might be Anderson’s least accessible film, but in many ways, it’s his most mature one. Discussing complicated themes about what it means to be a human being, it’s a cerebral and intelligent work that trusts the audience to absorb it rather than merely watch it. Many questions and issues are left open — not for the sake of ambiguity, but because the matters it focuses on are unanswerable and strike at the core of man’s existence. It’s easily the best film I’ve seen so far this year, and it’s hard to think of any others that could compete for that title.
And I saw it in the 70mm print.