The Master might be a movie of uncertainties, but it’s guaranteed that it will be the most widely discussed movie of 2012. Easy to admire, yet made in such a way that defies full comprehension (at least in a single viewing), folks will line up to spit out grand statements or theories about it’s greatness while haters will delight in tearing it down as a big beautiful beast of a movie signifying nothing. The Weinsteins will ensure everyone is talking about it until the awards and nominations will come flooding in. Fortunately, this is also a movie that deserves and supports all the adoration and discussion coming its way. Paul Thomas Anderson isn’t a filmmaker who makes little movies that find small pockets of adoration over time. His cinematic babies come out and smack audiences in the face demanding attention. The Master is business as usual in that regard, while also proving to be the filmmaker’s boldest attempt to defy audience expectations and tickle their brains to date. You’re going to be hearing a lot about this one. May as well check it out early before the hype becomes overbearing.
Anderson goes against the sensationalist desires of his audience by not really making that Scientology expose everyone was expecting. Yes, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic author who has created his own oddball religion and likes to spend time drifting on boats. Yes, entering that religion (called The Cause) hinges on interrogational “processing” that forces newcomers to relive their old fears to the point of breakdown very similar to Scientology’s “auditing” process. But these are just part of the movie and Anderson isn’t really out to mock or condemn. Dodd is very much his own character, a man of a thousand anecdotes and theories who is able to hypnotize anyone who will listen to him with ease. As played (incredibly well, it must be said) by Hoffman, he’s a man in intense control over every moment. He allows barely a flicker of emotion across his face that isn’t calculated. Even when he cracks, it’s only for an explosive moment before the next fixed expression and carefully planned speech restores order.
In stark contrast to Dobbs is Joaquin Phoenix’s wondering wildman Freddie Quell. Anderson opens on Freddie and follows him throughout. He begins in the South Pacific, wrapping up the war by suckling on torpedo juice moonshine and humping women he makes on the beach from sand. He’s let out after being told he has post traumatic stress disorder and us offered a quiet apology on his way out the door. From there, Freddie becomes a department store photographer, getting drunk on the photo chemicals and sleeping with every woman in sight. Eventually he lashes out in the middle of a shift and is fired. That’s the pattern in Freddie’s life. He’s a loner who despises being under anyone’s control and lives a life of sudden anarchistic bursts to burn any bridge he may have accidentally formed. Joaquin Phoenix plays the character in a collection of uncomfortable postures and wild-eyed stares (and like Hoffman, does it brilliantly).
So you have a movie based around a man of control and a wild force of nature. Perhaps they’ll clash? There’s your drama, folks and it’s endlessly fascinating. What starts as one of Anderson’s patented surrogate father/son relationships turns into something more complicated. It could be love, with sexual undercurrents running throughout (get ready for one of the most awkward wrestling scenes you’ve ever seen). It could be Dobbs viewing Freddie as the ultimate test of his abilities to manipulate and control. It could be that Dobbs sees something of himself in Freddie. It could be that Freddie sees himself in Dobbs. It could be that they are the same person. It could be all of these things. It could be none of them. But it is always intriguing to see the bizarre relationship play out. There Will Be Blood teased out ideas and themes in a similarly enigmatic way until the final milkshake scene put all of Anderson’s cards on the table and knocked the message home like a bowling pin to the skull. There’s no curtain call like that in The Master. The final scenes raise even more questions and viewers leave the theatre in a confused, overwhelmed, and curiously impressed state that gives the film an indescribable power.The movie is also an amazing piece of craftsmanship. Shooting in 70mm, the image is free of grain filled with a remarkable palate of saturated color. Like old Life Magazine photo spreads, the images are at once slice-of-life realism and highly stylized. The period detail is rich and lived in. Johnny Greenwod’s score flows under almost every scene, adding further atmosphere, dread, and mystery to every moment. The acting is exquisite from all involved, though it is very much the Phoenix/Hoffman show (well, except for Amy Adams, whose coldly manipulative wife of Dobbs could very well be in control of it all to further complicate matters). Despite all of the gorgeous stylistic accomplishments, the finest scenes of The Master involve Phoenix and Hoffman alone in a room. One involves Dobbs breaking down Freddie through processing. The other sees Dobbs and Freddie trapped in neighboring prison cells in a single two-shot, Phoenix flailing around like a wild beast on the left of the frame, Hoffman eerily still on the right. Their towering dueling performances compliment and contrast each other perfectly and all acting accolades should be awarded to both performers as a tie like as the Venice jury elected. Both are incredible individually and neither would be as good without the other.
Clearly I fall into the camp of those who have already joined The Master’s cult. The dissenters have started to arrive. There will be more. That’s exactly what should happen with this sort of film. Audiences very much take from it what they bring to it and not everyone likes to engage in that much work while munching on popcorn. Anderson’s done that before of course and in a way, The Master is the Magnolia to There Will Be Blood’s Boogie Nights. In each case he made two films with in a similar milieu (ensemble pieces of intertwining lives in the San Fernando Valley and intimate period pieces shot like epics that tease out elemental themes about America and drama). In both cinematic duos, the first movie was grand-standing, crowd pleasing filmmaking ending on a money shot, while the second was a more poetic and ambiguous exploration of a similar world designed to confound and question as it concludes. Anderson’s films to date are all unique, yet of a piece. Just six movies into his career, he’s made a case for himself as one of great filmmakers. What he does next is anyone’s guess, but expect it to take four to five years to happen and expect the movie geek anticipation to be obscenely high. If nothing else, The Master proves he’s the most intriguing (perhaps frustratingly so for some) director around today. Let’s hope his new billionaire benefactor keeps flipping the bill every time there’s a project he’s passionate enough to get behind.