Movie Review: The Master
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Paul Thomas Anderson's stunning new film, "The Master," blends philosophy and poetry to paint a portrait of two very different and troubled men entwined in their struggle to find peace and purpose.
The dense, haunting film doesn't follow traditional storytelling structure and challenges the audience with its pacing.
"The Master" envelops large psychological and spiritual questions surrounding life's purpose, free will, instinct, love and absolution. Though the gorgeous movie, shot on near-extinct 65mm film, wrestles with epic ideas, at its heart, it's a small story of diametrically opposed men writ large under Anderson's magnifying glass.
As with many of his previous films, including "Magnolia" and "Boogie Nights," "The Master" deals with a father-son type relationship, although the relationship in this film has added wrinkles of sexual tension. The surrogate son in this case is the manic Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix).
A sailor recently returned from the South Pacific in World War II, Quell has an unquenchable thirst for booze and self-destruction. The war may be over, but Quell has none of the peace that has presumably settled on the world.
His inner life is as tumultuous as the turbulent, crystal-blue waters we see in Anderson's opening shot. Though we don't witness any battle scenes, the casualties of war are written across Quell's face.
We don't know the exact demons Quell is battling, but the hyper-sexualized character struggles mightily with his re-entry to life back home. His inability to hide his rage and contempt for the civilian world abruptly ends his short stint as a portrait photographer at a department store.
Afterward, he winds up picking cabbage with migrant farm workers, until his love of booze and the possible poisoning of a fellow worker causes him to flee.
Quell eventually stows away on a yacht setting sail from San Francisco to New York. He comes to find the ship is owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). An affable blowhard, Dodd has his entire boat party eating out of his hands.
Though he professes to be not only the ship's "commander" but also a writer, nuclear physicist, doctor and, most importantly, "a helplessly inquisitive man," Dodd is not much more than a charlatan with a penchant for self-mythologizing.
Quell ingratiates himself to Dodd with a dangerous homemade alcohol concoction and soon learns that the commander is the head of a quasi-religious cult called The Cause. The organization uses a blend of transcendentalism, science-fiction, mysticism and self-help mumbo jumbo to promote journeying back to previous lives and getting at the root of our unhappiness and negative emotions.
Through his "process," Dodd says people can rid themselves of their sadness and their base animal instincts. The frothing, caged-animal Quell makes for an ideal candidate for Dodd's theories.
"You've wandered from the proper path," Dodd tells Quell. Dodd's motivation for helping Quell is never quite clear — is there a sexual component?
Does Dodd simply like the sycophantic attention of the handsome and troubled young man?
Does he really think he can cure the animalistic man of his unruly desires?
Or does he simply like Quell's paint-thinner-spiked booze?
The answer remains a mystery.
After some early processing, through which we learn Quell's father is dead and his mother institutionalized, Quell takes on the role of Dodd's lap dog and guard dog. He travels with Dodd's family to the East Coast, where Dodd will proselytize his made-up religion and raise funds.
Dodd's wife, Peggy (an icy-hot Amy Adams), has her suspicions about bringing the mercurial Quell along for the ride. Though she sits happily in her husband's shadow, almost always tending to a child or caressing her pregnant belly, Peggy is not simply standing by her man.
She attacks disbelievers and, as one scene suggests, may actually be the brains behind the entire operation.
Desperate and confused, Quell eventually begins to question Dodd's theories. The bubbling conflict between the two men eventually reaches its climax in one of the most powerful displays of acting in recent cinema history, the id of Quell and ego of Dodd appearing in startling relief.
Both Hoffman and Phoenix deliver astounding, Oscar-worthy performances that reside at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Phoenix's Quell is a mess. His shoulders slump, as he keeps his hands on his hips as if to prop him up, an emaciated Ed Sullivan.
Garbled half-spoken words trickle from his twisted-up face. He looks like a swaying cobra, charmed by Dodd, that could strike at any time. The over-the-top performance is almost impressionistic but comes back full circle, returning to earth to deliver a visceral rush.
Hoffman plays Dodd with an arrogant calm and showy erudition, occasionally breaking his suave veneer with bouts of singing and dancing that prove him as much unbalanced as charming. But under his comportment, you can sense a deep narcissism.
When a Cause member questions his methods and the shift in his philosophy, Dodd's insecurity manifests itself in bursts of rage, and it becomes evident how hard it must be to maintain the air of a demigod.
Anderson has admitted that the film was inspired by Scientology creator L. Ron Hubbard (the L. stands for Lafayette, which conveys a similar nobility as Lancaster), but "The Master" is in no way an attempt to reveal or criticize the religion. It is a story of free will and the vagaries of sin. The biblical themes are given voice by chilling pop songs such as Ella Fitzgerald's "Get thee Behind Me Satan."
But the main musical thrust comes from Anderson collaborator and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. He scores the film with an unsettling syncopation of plucked and bowed strings and surreal orchestration that sounds like "Peter and the Wolf" played backward by a band led by Dizzy Gillespie. The music keeps the audience on edge and intrigued, a sense of fear and doom constantly lingering.
The movie wanders, then hones in with intensity and increases to a dizzying gallop before drifting once more into large, open spaces. It is turbulent like the sea that is used as a leitmotif.
Despite its fascinating characters and universal themes, "The Master" takes place at a distance. The audience never gets inside the heads of the tragic figures in this difficult story, but the lush and acid tale washes over us, seeping into our pores.
The at-times-impenetrable film will require multiple viewings (see it in 70mm at the Alamo Ritz, if you can) to fully appreciate the multitude of themes and subtext.
Anderson, whose genius has led to his own cult of fans, seems to imply that we are all servants to something — our egos or lovers or animal instincts — and that we all are in search of a master to whom we can submit. Because the world is a scary place to travel alone.