In the not-too-distant past, I found myself in Boone, North Carolina, for the first time in what seemed like ages, and I was lucky enough to spend a good chunk of time watching and conversing about film with two of the editors of Film’s Okay, John and Adam. For those not in the know, John’s film collection is gargantuan (taking up a large portion of one room), so it has become common practice for me to sit among his collected cinema, wading through it for new treasures that might have slipped under my radar, all the while geeking out to the tune of a high-level movie conversation that would doubtlessly sound like a foreign language to most people if they chose to listen in. In the course of our talks on this particular voyage to the tip-top of the mountain range, our colloquy included a rather long dissertation from all parties on how we like to display our agglomeration of DVDs and Blu-Rays, John mentioning how he kept his movies separate from his FILMS (capital letters are important here, not superfluous). Under this filing system, popcorn flicks and movies that he would find entertaining but didn’t adhere to the auteur theory or add anything new or noteworthy to the cinematic landscape would go into the larger section of his collection. Annexed in the hallway adjoining his room are the films from the masters of the medium, your Hitchcocks, Goddards, Fullers, Fords, Clouzots, and Jarmuschs. Cinematic efforts from legendary filmmakers; movies that cineastes cherish when much of the general population doesn’t get them and doesn’t want to; films from visionaries that are still in the game that we often anticipate from the moment we hear production begins. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of these directors, and his new film, The Master, is walking on rarified air; it’s a movie that manages to transcend the traditional narrative structure, allowing the movie and its subject—along with its own peculiar creative process—to illustrate exactly what the film is about.
In Anderson’s latest, most challenging effort, Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, an author and self-proclaimed philosopher (read instead, charlatan) who is in the midst of starting up his movement, “The Cause.” The mission statement of his life’s work is to explain, and hopefully cure, man’s ills by rummaging through their past lives in an effort to seek out the historical roots of their malady. When Dodd comes across Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, he realizes he has found his greatest challenge, and he focuses on containing all of Freddie’s rage and madness. Quell represents the film’s true protagonist, a former sailor who found himself stationed in the Pacific during the war, and who, upon returning stateside, has been diagnosed with an unnamed emotional disorder. The audience is already clued in on this fact, however. As the film opens we watch Freddie, on R&R with his fellow seamen, as he divides his down time by humping an anatomically correct sand sculpture and masturbating in the surf. Not your typical behavior, to be sure.
Once cut free of his obligations to the Navy, Freddie sets forth on an alcohol-fueled odyssey of debauchery. Even in this way, Quell is atypical, choosing to get loaded on his own concoctions, generally created through whatever ingredients he can find at the time, items like fluids from the insides of a torpedo, paint thinner, and film darkroom chemicals. This man that is ruled by nothing more than the sum of his impulses and addictions finally bottoms out, finds himself on the lam from the authorities, and decides to stow away on a boat that happens to be the home of a party and wedding Dodd is throwing for his daughter. The Master immediately feels a connection to this strange individual, insisting that they have met before in a past life, having shared an important interaction. Maybe he is attracted to Freddie’s primitive impulses, maybe the attraction is sexual in nature—or it’s also possible that he genuinely wants to help this man, to heal his broken mind and get his life back on the right track. Whatever the reason may be, from that point on, the writer takes the social outcast under his wing.
Simply put, The Master is a relationship story between these two men. Anderson’s work has always carried the intent to examine the American nuclear family (Boogie Nights) or, more frequently, the dynamic that exists in father-son relationships (There Will Be Blood), and his latest effort is no different, as much of Dodd and Quell’s relationship can be seen as paternal rather than fraternal. But this time it seems that the director has more on his mind as the characters also seem to be two sides of one coin. The Master seeks nothing but calm and order, but his pupil represents pure chaos. Both of these characters have the capacity to indulge in the opposite side—Freddie, when he has to, can morph his thought processes into direct action; Dodd is prone to instant outbursts when confronted with a nay-saying nonbeliever or nitpicky followers get his dander up—making them a true yin and yang, even if their colors aren’t solid, instead swirling around with a drop of their opposite in the mix.
As Dodd’s wife, Peggy, Amy Adams seems to be more of an observer rather than participant, but in the few scenes where she is called on to make an impression, the actress proves herself more than capable, diving into a role that may make it hard for some viewers to rectify her character in this with her past onscreen persona, that of the cheery rom-com genre. I wish there were more to her character, as she puts forth a fascinating performance, one in which lays the heart of a true zealot, consistently pulling Dodd’s strings from the sidelines, course correcting his actions and keeping him fully focused in times of weakness. It becomes obvious that she will (has?) crushed anyone who opposes The Cause, and her mistrust of Freddie leads us to believe she could be the end of him. It is a wonderful, vanity-free performance, I just wished there was more of it.
Joaquin Phoenix’s work here is beyond reproach and I remained astonished at his level of commitment to his character throughout the runtime of the film. The actor creates a performance that is a bundle of ticks and mannerisms, making Freddie appear as if he is always on the verge of a complete and total meltdown. The actor looks 20 years older here, his eyes sunken into his gaunt visage, his gait and posture reminiscent of Quasimodo, perhaps weighed down by his unbridled anger or the poisons he continually pumps into his body. Quell has no doubt been worn down by life and Phoenix truly makes the audience uncomfortable; the performance is committed, real, and no safety net is employed, made all the more thrilling as the actor sticks the landing. Meanwhile, Hoffman continues to show why he is the best actor of his generation. His Dodd is the perfect vision of a preening, phony intellectual, only convincing enough to the lonely and lost around him that he is the only one with answers to their plight. It’s a performance in which the actor is called on to use every ounce of charisma he has as Dodd must constantly slide from cordial and welcoming to authoritative and domineering, and he does it without breaking a sweat.
The Master and its director aren’t interested in point A to point B storytelling;, instead Anderson takes his sweet time, letting his characters be who they are and letting the audience become familiar, all the while explaining The Cause through their practice of it rather than exposition. This allows the viewer’s reactions to seep in slowly, creating a magnificently rewarding (though no doubt trying at times) cinematic experience. The unique and alarming score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood throbs with menace, helping to accentuate the film’s rotten underbelly, and the photography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. (Coppola’s go-to guy as of late) is nothing short of dazzling, proving that shooting the film in 65mm was the way to go, especially when close-ups of the actors’ faces fill the screen. The homage to Ford’s famous shot in The Searchers is wonderfully done and fits snuggly within the texture of Anderson’s current creation, giving us film nerds another point in the film when we can just look over at one another and nod silently.
The sum of its parts makes The Master the type of film that just doesn’t get made all that often, it doesn’t fit comfortably into the studio system’s cookie cutter frame of mind or fit the profitability mold they prefer. But with Anderson’s persistence and vision to see this effort to competition—which wasn’t easy with Scientology, the most litigious religion ever breathing down his neck—he has been able to guarantee that The Master succeeds in almost every way, fully worthy of the admiration and accolades it has received. It’s as rich and thought provoking as film gets and I can’t wait to see where the director goes from here.