By Linc Leifeste | September 21, 2012
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Ambyr Childers, Jesse Plemons, Rami Malek, Laura Dern, Madisen Beaty
What can I say about The Master, the latest epic film from Paul Thomas Anderson, arguably the best American director currently working, that will get you out to the theater? How about I gush briefly about the intensity of his artistic vision that is so ably conveyed due to his stunning mastery of his craft? This man can tell a story, visually and emotionally transport the viewing audience into his own fabled creations and draw out the most intense of performances from his actors like no other. At times I’ve thought he’s the Bob Dylan, the Cormac McCarthy (in the case of There Will Be Blood the Herman Melville), the Tennessee Williams, of our cinema. In short, he can make movies like just about no other American director currently on the scene. Keep in mind that it’s been five years since his last film and that over the last seventeen years Anderson has only released six films and you get a sense of the loving devotion he gives to each of his creations. All of that to say that when a new Anderson film is released, it’s a reason to celebrate; The Master being no exception.
The Master is, on its face, the story of two men. One is the Master himself, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), founder of a new pseudo-religious American cult called The Cause in the years just following World War II. Part confidence man, part crackpot philosopher and part showman, Hoffman is absolutely stunning as Dodd. His new religion combines a touch of Freud with a belief in past lives and during “processing” subjects are questioned in depth in order to discover past traumas (possibly from in the womb or even from past lives) that are the source of current failures. If this sounds a bit like L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, as you may be aware from all of the pre-release chatter, it is. The second man is an unlikely disciple of Dodd, alcoholic roustabout and ne’er-do-well with an otherworldly talent for mixing and consuming cocktails from ingredients such as darkroom chemicals, combustible fuels, paint thinner and God knows what other substances,Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). When we’re introduced to Quell, he’s serving in the Navy in WWII but his behavior makes it instantly clear that he’s a troubled soul, an outsider among his band of brothers. This is confirmed during a pre-discharge psychological evaluation in which every Rorschach inkblot is seen by him as female genitalia. Post military, he tries going straight as a department store photographer but his life is quickly unraveling along with his reality. Eventually he finds himself doing farm work only to find himself in trouble when one of his potent homemade cocktails sickens a fellow laborer. Running for his life, he winds up stowing away on a ship carrying Dodd and his followers. And thus begins one of the greatest love stories in all of American cinema.
While the dynamic is partly unexplainable, as is only proper, in Dodd and his Cause Quell sees a balm for his internal chaos and in Quell Dodd sees an unconquerable force of nature, a pure primal source of energy. Opposites, as they say, attract. And while both men are ostensibly heterosexual, there is definitely a strong sexual current flowing somewhere under the surface. The back and forth power struggle between the two men is a joy to behold, at times the dynamic similar to that of a father and son, at other times of a teacher and student, and at times akin to two warring nations. The two are generally a study in contrasts, with Phoenix’s brilliant physical portrayal of an outwardly broken shell of a man barely containing the nervous energy inside, with all his tics and flinches and impulsive behaviors being the complete opposite of Dodd’s mannered restraint (except on the rare occasions where he is challenged and loses his cool). And where Dodd is a fraud, a charlatan, a knowing puppet-master, Quell is in his own way sincere to a fault. He may be crazy but there is the sense that his insanity could stem from looking into the void and seeing it for what it is.
Not to be left out are the women of the film. There are the many objects of Quell’s physical desires but most important is his lost love, Doris Solstad (Madisen Beaty), the girl that would have become his wife had his life followed the normal prescribed course. And there are the many objects of Dodd’s religious manipulations but most important is his current of several wives, Peggy (Amy Adams), presenting outwardly the image of the obedient wife but in reality serving as the guiding hand behind the Master’s machinations. Her eye is always on the prize and she sees Quell for the disruptive force he could prove to be to the future of The Cause.
Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s stunning visuals perfectly encapsulate the feel of the period (see this film in 70mm if given the option) and Johnny Greenwood’s arresting soundtrack, at times eerily reminiscent of his brilliant work in There Will Be Blood but entirely original, adds multiple layers of dread and suspense. In other words this is a film that is firing on all cylinders. Between the look, the soundtrack and the Oscar-worthy acting performances, it’s possible that the real star of the film will be buried in the mix. But make no mistake, and I don’t throw this word around lightly, Paul Thomas Anderson is a genius. He is crafting uniquely American myths that delve deep into our collective soul, epic sagas about our constant identity struggles against inner and outer nature, our need for bigger-than-life figures, our endless impulse to dominate the world around us, about nothing less than our sins and the religions that we turn to (or create) for our salvation.