It has been a very long time since cinema has been graced with anything quite like “The Master.” Everyone must concede that whether or not Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film works for them on a personal level, as a piece of cinematic art, it is one of the few films of our time that deserves to be called truly iconoclastic. It answers to no man, no convention, and no expectation. It boldly sets sail into uncharted waters, and even if that ride isn’t one of unparalleled brilliance, it’s one of true unfamiliarity.
If you are looking for the film to entertain, you’re likely to find yourself disappointed. ”The Master” is an extremely challenging watch, particularly on a first viewing when you expect to feel the plot building towards some sort of a decisive climax. It really doesn’t. Anderson, who writes all the films he directs, takes a very unique approach to this story by really just letting the characters marinate on screen. They have very little forward momentum and just seem to sort of let themselves be blown around by the wind.
Which means that if you want to enjoy “The Master,” or get anything out of it, you are going to have to engage with it on a much deeper level. Namely, I highly recommend that to even begin to extrapolate some meaning from it, you need to see it twice. You are going to have some snap judgements on the film that may be incorrect due to the assumptions and the expectations you carried in with you. Absorb the basic chain of events, ruminate on them for a little while, and then go back. Without worrying about the outcome of events, you’ll be able to start seeing how many levels Anderson’s script is working on.
You can watch the film as a look at post-World War II America’s other 1950s, one characterized by manic depression, alcoholism, and perhaps even mental illness by Freddie Quell, played with an inhuman streak by Joaquin Phoenix. For a look at someone controlled by his demons, Anderson could not have found a better actor than Phoenix, whose body completely disassociates from any grounds of normal human movement. In a way, we watch his character less as an equal and more like a bug under a microscope.
While gruff, confused Freddie is not particularly sympathetic nor magnetic, Phoenix makes sure we can’t take our eyes off of him. We follow Freddie on an ambling journey, but he never seems to move past what Freud called the “oral stage,” the first step of psychosexual development. He’s fascinated with breasts in the way a thirteen-year-old would be, and Phoenix definitely throws temper tantrums in the film like a three-year-old. What exactly is Anderson trying to say about the soldier returning home?
Moreover, what is Anderson trying to say about religion? After all, that’s probably why you were interested in this movie in the first place (unless you just wanted to say you saw it on Oscar night). He thankfully keeps the focus tight on the boom of “cult” religion that emerged in the post-war atmosphere, believing the two to be closely and perhaps inextricably linked. The example on screen could easily have been extrapolated to cover religion as a whole, but once again, Anderson refuses the easy way out.
His Lancaster Dodd is peculiar in his own right, although anything looks normal when foiled with Freddie. He’s a firm leader, assured of the veracity of what almost everybody else considers delusions. Again, the casting could not have been better because when a strong character needs to be sold to an audience, I doubt there’s a better working actor for that part than Philip Seymour Hoffman.
When he says he thinks his religion, “The Cause,” can cure certain strains of leukemia, you can tell that every ounce of his body believes it. Heck, if you were there in the moment, you might even believe it too. Ronald Reagan once said, “You’d be surprised how much being a good actor pays off,” and Hoffman makes Dodd a great actor in his own right. Flanked by his pregnant and stern wife Peggy, played by Amy Adams in a brilliantly muted role, Dood embraces a perplexed Freddie while intoxicated on a bizarre concoction that somehow involves paint-thinner.
In numerous interviews, Paul Thomas Anderson has stated that he really just set out to make a love story in “The Master,” and I think it’s this aspect of the story that will yield the most interesting revelations upon further analysis and deeper studies. What attracts Freddie and Dodd? What kind of perverse power dynamics predominate in their relationship? Who needs who, and does one need the other more? What benefits do they give each other?
I have no doubt that Anderson, Phoenix, and Hoffman each have a very good idea of the answers to those questions. They are likely buried deep at the core of “The Master,” awaiting those willing to look long and hard into the film … and into themselves. A- /