The Master (2012)
Written & Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a veteran adrift after the close of World War II, caught up in his trauma, psychoses, and macho posturing to heal himself. He bounces around from job to job until, by sheer chance, ending up onboard a private yacht populated by Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and the followers of his philosophical movement “The Cause.” Lancaster takes a liking to Freddie and brings him into the fold slowly introducing his ideas and practices to the man. Freddie provides “The Master,” as his followers call him, with his moonshine and in turn, Lancaster begins taking Freddie through his process. Skeptics await The Cause on the East Coast, and Lancaster finds himself being swallowed by the movement, less sure of what his aim is anymore. Freddie struggles against his wild, animal nature and the hope that he can be free from the past and forge a better future.
The Master is a perfect piece of cinema. Director Paul Thomas Anderson has even stated that this is his favorite film of his own making and that he doesn’t see another movie surpassing it anytime soon. What makes The Master such masterpiece is Anderson’s direction, the magnificent cast, and the sublime score by Jonny Greenwood. All these elements come together to make a film that is and will be considered one of the great pieces of art of our time. It’s the only film of recent years that I saw three times in the movie theater and continues to elude my full understanding, yet constantly lure me back to explore its secrets again and again.
Anderson is a very meticulous editor, and this can be seen if you ever explore the special features on the DVD/BluRay releases of his movies. He always includes short mood pieces that contain footage cut from the feature. Punch Drunk Love has two: Blossoms & Blood and 12 Scopitones. I often get the sense that Anderson approaches filmmaking from both a storytelling perspective as well as a visual artist. His scenes feel like they have come from the brushstrokes of a painter, sometimes broad and sweeping while others are detailed and nuanced. There are big chunks of story exposition left out of The Master that we are expected to infer and we can very seamlessly. It’s never directly stated how much Freddie goes through after his discharge from the military and his meeting with Lancaster. We are shown two jobs he has during that time: a department store portrait photographer and field worker in Salinas. Both vignettes serve to illustrate key components to Freddie’s personality: his jealousy and his guilt.
Joaquin Phoenix won my admiration from this performance and ever since seeing The Master his presence in a film always heightens my curiosity and drive to see the movie. What is striking immediately in the opening moments of The Master is the physicality Phoenix has brought to Freddie. He’s a goblin of a human being, wasted away and hunched over, ribcage and shoulders poking from beneath his thin skin. Phoenix chooses to play him with a slur, something brought on by his alcoholism, but there’s also some element of nervous damage akin to a stroke. His posture changes depending on whom he shares a scene with. When he’s alone in a darkroom making a seemingly undigestable brew out of photo development chemicals, he’s relaxed meaning we see him as almost a hunchback. When his paramour enters the room, he suddenly stiffens up, assuming a pose he believes is more befitting of a suitor. When Freddie lets his defenses down, he forgets to maintain this pose, and thus his insecurities are laid bare. It’s not until the third act of the picture when he walks upright but without the awkward nature surrounding it.
Amy Adams plays Lancaster’s current wife, Peggy. This role could easily have been written as and played out like a variation on Lady Macbeth. However, Peggy is as complicated as any other figure we’re presented with. She does have a deep suspicion of Freddie and almost everyone who kneels at Lancaster’s feet with praise. There’s a good reason for her to work on steering her husband’s gaze because she is the latest in an undefined number of previous Mrs. Dodds. She also sees The Cause as a tool to raise her family’s status in society. After encountering a skeptic partygoer during a New York City reception, Peggy rants aloud about how they shouldn’t have to explain themselves to people any longer, that the actions of The Cause should make them above reproach by lesser people. Amy Adams is one of my favorite actresses because she can so finely reach that place between quiet personality and persuasive authority. She doesn’t need to explode to convey earthshaking emotion. Adams deftly handles the tension of scenes and allows it to build while never betraying her cool.
Writing about Phillip Seymour Hoffman without becoming emotional is tough. I find myself feeling a mix of anger at him and grief that we won’t be able to witness his talent bring new work to fruition ever again. The Master is the coldest reminder of his passing as I believe this is was masterwork as an actor. Lancaster Dodd is one of the most complex and confusing characters we’ve had in the cinema. He is a profoundly charismatic, changing what type of charm he exudes depending on his audience, similar to Freddie’s posing. Around members of The Cause, Lancaster speaks with witticisms and erudite philosophy. With Freddie, he appears to be freer, relaxed. His emotions bubble to the surface, both loving and volcanic. For all his confidence as the film goes on, we see cracks emerge hinting that his philosophy is deeply flawed. At one point, his son tells Freddie that Lancaster is making it all up as he goes along. I don’t even believe Lancaster knows where his truth ends the falsehoods begin. When he releases his second volume, The Split Saber, he’s almost immediately questioned by a follower about the change of a word from “remember” to “imagine” in a question and how that harms the integrity of their process. Lancaster impulsively snaps at her revealing his doubts about what he’s even doing anymore. All of this awestriking performance was made possible by the immense empathy and intelligence of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. God, I miss him.
The Master is an enigma, the music of Jonny Greenwood helping to assist that sense of mystery. While the plot of the film uses the historical skeleton of Scientology’s founding, I believe the themes to be less about L. Ron Hubbard. Anderson isn’t making a fictionalized biopic, there’s a love story going on between Freddie and Lancaster, there’s an examination of post-War America and the lack of spiritual direction, some critics have even argued that the movie pits the classical style of acting (Lancaster) against the torment-filled physical acting of the 1950s (see James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando). I am of the thought that all of these are valid interpretations because Anderson has indeed created art in this work. The Master is capable of so many modes of interpretation because like great art it’s creator has not chosen to pin it down to one thing. I am sure Anderson pulls new things out of the film when he revisits it. The Master is the kind of film that reignites a love for movies in me, that feeds my hunger for art, that keeps me going back to the theater in the hopes of having that transcendent experience again.