Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master opens to the soft, whispering sounds of the sea followed by an image of swirling foam eddies stirred up behind a ship on the turquoise ocean. It’s a motif Anderson returns to again and again throughout the film and it bespeaks turmoil and rudderless wandering. A sailor on that ship, Freddie Quell, is adrift in the eddies of history trailing behind the cataclysm of World War II. Lonely, self-loathing and pumped up by violence and lust, Freddie is in a holding pattern with only the simulacra of fighting or love making – wrestling matches on the beach or inert sex objects sculpted from sand – to occupy him. He’s about to return to a society that was kept, for the most part, safely away from the horrors of war; a society wanting to move forward, no longer needful of the job for which Freddie has been trained. Impatient, restless and prone to fits of temper, he is driven almost completely by the temptations of sex and booze. Refusing or unable to be pinned down, he says what he wants and goes where he wants.
Before long, the directionless Freddie is pulled into the orbit of Lancaster Dodd, the L. Ron Hubbard-like leader of a new religion called “The Cause.” Controlled, careful and analytical, Dodd is the cool counterpoint to Freddie’s fire. At the same time, he shares Freddie’s temper and his predilection for booze and the two form a strange bond. Simultaneously pulled together and driven apart by their volatile personalities, they seem to understand each other in ways no one else does and each fulfills some need in the other. Freddie finds acceptance and community while Dodd finds a test case for his theories of personality and an outlet for his darker drives.
Referred to throughout pre-production as “Paul Thomas Anderson’s Scientology film,” The Master is less about any specific religious movement and more about a relationship between two men, their search for deeper meaning and how that reflects the psychological environment of America in the 1950s when a number of cults promised anchors for the aimless. Less driven by plot than Anderson’s previous films, this is really a character piece. Like its lead, it feels a little unstructured and directionless at times (probably by design), but because of the seething, titanic performances at its core, you can’t help following it from start to finish whether you know where it’s going or not.
Love or hate Anderson’s individual films, there’s no denying he’s gotten great performances out of his actors throughout his career, from John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall in Hard Eight, to Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, to Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore and William H. Macy in Magnolia, to Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love and perhaps most memorably to Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will be Blood. These are career best pieces of work by great actors, yet Joaquin Phoenix may have outdone them all.
This is one of those rare performances where an actor is so thoroughly transformed that you forget you’re watching an act. Anderson relentlessly probes Freddi, examining him like a bug under a glass. His camera moves in close, studying the lined face, the eyes flickering with a blunt, inarticulate animal rage. Half his face frozen by some kind of palsy, limping with a scoliotic stoop and his spindly arms swinging ineffectually at his side, Phoenix the actor is almost unrecognizable. It’s the kind of physical performance that can come across affected or showy or calculated, but the actor pulls it off the same way he did in the wildly underappreciated faux documentary I’m Still Here which left audiences unsure whether they were seeing a character or the real man.
As Lancaster Dodd meanwhile, Philip Seymour Hoffman has a greater challenge in a way because of the character’s natural reserve and veneer of dignity. He’s less prone to fly off in an attention grabbing rage, but the performance is a marvel of subtlety. Hoffman dispenses with most of his familiar tics and builds Dodd from the ground up. Like Phoenix, he disappears into the role, infusing Dodd with a deep humanity. This is no huckster or con artist. He revels in the spotlight as the leader of the flock, but he really believes what he’s doing.
If there’s an issue about the film for me, it’s that it didn’t hit me in the gut quite the way Anderson’s other films have. I didn’t form as strong an emotional connection with it, but I don’t necessarily think it’s a fault of the filmmaking. This is a ballsy, confident and compelling film. Anderson has the intelligence and self-assuredness at this point in his career to let it be subtle and a little bit inscrutable. He’s comfortable sitting back and just riding the marvelous performances of his lead actors. The Master is a film that contains those performances without ever smothering them.
Filed under: Review