The Master

The Master ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

When Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) stands, he stands bowed: his shoulders hunched, his head drawn to the earth. He shows the history of his varied career in his posture: aboard a naval vessel in the waning days of World War II, maneuvering below a torpedo bay; a department store photographer, always bending over the camera, taking pictures of those fortunate to have a carefree smile; a farm hand, stooping to break open head after head of cabbage. In each of these roles he concocts his own moonshine, at once brazen and secretive, and doesn’t care when this vice forces him to move on. Freddie moves like a beaten dog, never certain but always expecting. He is an outsider, literally – on the edges of whatever group he’s allowed to orbit.

One night he walks along a pier, for seemingly no particular reason, and quietly, fatefully skulks on to a luxury ship in the midst of a celebration. He’s woken without alarm by a lovely young woman, who asks him to come with her. He follows her into the bright morning light, then to a stateroom, where Lancaster Dodd, M.O.C., PhD, MD (Philip Seymour Hoffman) sits in a red robe, his back straight: composed, regal. Dodd introduces himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher… but above all I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.” He is a man who has people come to him, who is ready and open. With Dodd’s offer of work aboard the ship, and a request to make more of the moonshine that the two apparently shared the night before, Freddie comes into the fold. What he joins is not a party cruise but a new religious movement, churning forward, leaving a wake as mesmerizing as its techniques.

Writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is an extraordinary drama that features career-best performances from Phoenix and Hoffman, as men so different – down to their body language – and yet intrinsically linked. The ways in which Anderson frames these characters is at once classical and necessary; they inhabit the screen, commanding our attention. Anderson shot the film in 70mm, a rare format (the last 70mm feature film was Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1996) – in brief layman’s term, it’s comparable to IMAX. Normally used for panoramic spectacle, the stock is often employed here for the most expressive and nuanced of close-ups. Phoenix is an animalistic live wire, alternating from a vulnerable to a vicious physicality, and his emotive slate eyes are similarly either yearning or accusing. Hoffman is wholly convincing as someone that others refer to as Master, yet eventually shows cracks in his veneer.

In the time it takes the boat to travel from San Francisco to New York via the Panama Canal, Freddie practically becomes part of the family, to the chagrin of Dodd’s true believer wife, Mary Sue (Amy Adams in a revelatory performance). She is suspicious of Freddie and acts as an intermediary between him and her husband; she influences both men and is vital to the story and tone of the film. Jesse Plemons (as son Val), Ambyr Childers (as daughter Elizabeth), and Rami Malek (as son-in-law Clark) are each great in their roles as the rest of the family, but the story is primarily about Freddie and how he both upsets the balance and pushes Dodd further ahead in his work. Though this film does feature an adoptive father figure storyline like Anderson’s Sydney (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), and There Will be Blood (2007), it’s also just as bold, exciting, and different as those films were from each other.

Much of the early and continuing discussion of The Master was how it might be about Scientology; hopefully this easy topic will be quickly moved past upon its wider theatrical release. Though the character of Dodd is definitely influenced by L. Ron Hubbard, the film is concerned with far more interesting things, such as control, acceptance, human nature, biology, and temperament, and whether what we wish for can truly happen. It employs Dodd’s efforts for “The Cause” as not only an examination of how people might join a nebulous movement, but how our past behaviors might serve as reason for our traits and struggles. As Dodd works on his next book, The Split Saber, Freddie is drawn further in to the Cause, and we see the methods at work by Dodd to both gain members and deconstruct skeptical candidates. One of the strongest scenes in the film is when Freddie has his first “processing” by Dodd: a mixture of a detective interrogating a suspect, a priest hearing confession, and a magician performing a trick; Dodd is a master charlatan – he may not have the answers, but he has the method of questioning potential allies and of preventing questions from potential adversaries.

Throughout his features Anderson has shown an assured hand for detailing how people act when they don’t know how to act “properly,” and his latest film adds some surrealist touches and narrative devices to allow us to further observe people’s true nature. Another key element of Anderson’s complex filmic morality is that he doesn’t judge (except in a few necessary instances), he presents, and here The Master excels again. The audience is allowed, without a clear surrogate, to take in this story from multiple viewpoints, but without being prompted to side with or declare one character a victor. The two men are a quantum entanglement of id and superego, taking diametrically opposite paths (sometimes literally), but wanting the same things. A critical line of dialogue almost slips right by: “You can’t take this life straight, can you?” This at once dismissive but accurate summation can be applied to both men. What Anderson taps into with this period piece is that maybe, generations later, no one can, and there are still troubled souls that don’t know what they seek, and we may not even be able to find someone to foist an answer upon us.

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