Film Review – The Master
It’s apparent that director Paul Thomas Anderson is in love with the language of film. Every shot in one of his movies is framed and draped with so much attention to detail, and filled with so much enthusiasm for what is being delivered, that it is hard not to be caught up in the spell they create. Whether it’s a player showing an apprentice how to gamble, a director introducing a new actor to the social scene, the manufacturing and selling of plungers, or drilling for oil, Anderson creates an almost childlike delight in presenting these things to an audience. In his latest film, The Master, we are given philosophical discourse in place of tapped oil wells on fire. Scenes bristle with energy as characters trade agreements as well as barbs over the concepts of what makes humans better at being human.
With equal parts character study and visual treatise, we are presented the story of two men of opposing concepts who can’t help but be drawn towards each other. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is raw instinct; his character traits are a bundle of agitation and libido that is most commonly associated with monkeys—or so he seems. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is ashamed of those traits in a human and has dedicated himself to curing humanity of its perceived lower, animal self by creating a religious movement called The Cause. He is a man who believes that mankind, as he puts it, can bring itself to a perfect state of existence—or so he seems. Neither man is truly one of anything, and perhaps not even truly what either appears to be—much like the rest of humanity. They are complex people, but they cling to each of their own core ideals like they are simple people.
Freddie begins the story as a seaman on a battleship at the end of the WWII. As a hobby, he’s a mixologist, taking whatever alcohol he can find and concocting a better way to consume it—whether it is something standard, or fuel from torpedoes. After the war, Freddie spends some time in a V.A. hospital, is released, and takes a job as a portrait photographer at a department store, until his aggressive nature causes him to lose his job. Wandering about, he comes across a yacht that is being used by Lancaster Dodd and his followers of The Cause, an up-and-coming religious cult that takes a lot of concepts from past-regression psychology and combines them with the “mind over self” aspects of L. Ron Hubbard’s similar following, Scientology. Anderson was inspired by Hubbard and the early years of Scientology, which he used to help create the character of Dodd and The Cause. Freddie and Dodd are immediately compelled to engage each other. It is, in many ways, love at first sight. Enamored with Freddie’s ability to make a good drink, Dodd hires him to be his personal bartender and brings him into the fold of The Cause, where their friendship becomes a relationship.
Everything about the movie feels like a cinematic epic of grandiose proportions, from the look and sound of being shot on 70mm—the cameras were so loud during filming they can actually be heard on screen—to the hauntingly detached, jazz-touched score by Jonny Greenwood. Anderson’s style as a filmmaker has changed with each movie since his debut, Hard Eight. He is very much an organic filmmaker; his movies are often loosely written with descriptions of sequences rather than scene breakdowns, and much of what the finished product is comes from trying various ideas on set to multiply edited sequences. Here he’s applied the same concepts, but they are much more distilled, broken down to a much more simplistic style than in Boogie Nights and Magnolia.
In many ways, this is Anderson’s least accessible film. There is very little in the way of a plot, scenes are followed by scenes that are not always foretold by the previous one, and, at times, it borders on the surreal. Instead, much of the film’s time is spent delivering symbolism through character interaction. Freddie represents everything The Cause wishes to eradicate from humanity. He is, to Dodd, The Cause’s greatest challenge, and a challenge he presents. The real heart of the story is in how the friendship of these two men weathers the challenge that Dodd takes it upon himself to overcome. It is as if by doing so Dodd will legitimize The Cause—not just to its followers, but to himself. Dodd comes across outwardly as a man who firmly believes the new age, pop-psychology mishmash he’s developed, but his actions, especially concerning The Cause’s defense, speak otherwise.
There are no easy answers presented here, which is exactly what good, artistic film should do. Great art challenges you and forces you to examine even the minutest details, as well as the overarching bigger picture. Anderson has crafted a film that speaks to its characters, through its characters. And because of such a style, we are given two career-defining performances by Phoenix and Hoffman. This is an actor’s paradise, where getting lost in the character is the point. Hoffman is hypnotic as the carnival barker who is belligerent in defending ideals he may not even believe himself. Phoenix is absolutely magnetic as Freddie; he’s frightening, he’s erratic, he’s a monkey, yet he’s consolable, he’s endearing, and above all, he is loveable. Which boils everything down to what I think is the most important question the film is asking of its audience: is it possible to maintain those base animal instincts that are inside of us and still be loved and capable of giving love?
Final Grade: A