With The Master, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has created a film that is both emotionally weighty and captivating. The density and relentlessness with which the film is delivered left me reeling, and even as an audience member I felt myself getting sucked into the psychotic whirlpool occupied by the entire ensemble.
The film follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as he struggles to return to society after fighting in the South Pacific during World War II. He meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a false prophet of sorts with an intensely devoted following. The two are fast friends, so Quell joins in touting Dodd’s cultish spiritual techniques in which subjects attempt to communicate with their past selves.
The Master is, much like Anderson’s last film There Will Be Blood, stunningly acted. This is Phoenix’s first role since his supposedly staged cringe-worthy hip-hop career and all-around meltdown, as recorded in the 2010 mockumentary I’m Still Here. Newly risen from the ashes, Phoenix has physically metamorphosed from his past self. In movies like Signs and Gladiator, he played muscular, robust characters (a minor-league slugger and a Roman emperor, respectively). But in The Master, he appears both physically and emotionally broken. He often adopts a stance—hands on hips, elbows out and shoulders forward—that makes him seem somehow askew, and he constantly furrows and clenches his face to make himself appear aged and distressed. Clever costuming adds to the image—his shirts seem to have been cut a bit too large to obscure his already-slight musculature, and his overly pleated, hiked-up slacks give him the aura of a frail octogenarian. His psyche is equally rickety, evidenced by his raging addictions to alcohol and sex and his paper-thin temper.
Hoffman, too, gives a fantastic performance. His representation of Dodd captures a charisma and likeability that nearly had me buying into “The Cause,” his time-traveling pseudo-religion. While watching, I was never sure if Dodd was as screwy as his contrived techniques or a brilliant con man scamming the emotionally unstable into buying his books.
Anderson makes the actors the centerpiece of his shots, especially in the most pivotal, emotional scenes. Throughout the film, we continually see intense close-ups with only the actors’ face in frame; this technique is extremely effective in drawing the audience into the happenings on screen. The penultimate scene—an intense meeting of the two protagonists—had me, a non-crying moviegoer, on the brink of tears. Here Anderson seems to borrow a few scenic elements from the iconic bowling alley confrontation in There Will Be Blood; the enormous office is filled more by Quell and Dodd’s personae than the sparse furnishings. The tactic paid off: when I saw the film, the audience was stunned in their seats, and no one got up to leave until well into the spartan credit reel.
Throughout the entirety of the film, the soundtrack is pitch-perfect. When needed, it comes to the fore and gives necessary auditory interest to Anderson’s visually spectacular world. Just as important, it isn’t afraid to get out of the way when only background texture is needed. Only while staring at the credits did I notice Jonny Greenwood, lead guitarist for Radiohead, credited with the score. Greenwood also wrote the horror-filmish score for There Will Be Blood, and his second partnership with Anderson is again fruitful. One recurring musical theme is especially effective: a comfortable, swelling unison shifts into dissonant, improvised cluster chords in parallel with the psychological turmoil that Freddie embodies on screen. Much of the wonder in seeing The Master is the uncertainty that resonates long after the film.
While it is never made clear what motivates Dodd in his odd crusade, as the audience we’re even more unsure of how we are meant to feel about the angry, obsessed Quell. Anderson is not afraid to buck the tradition of clear-cut villains and heroes. This, along with stellar sets and costumes, grounds an intrinsically kooky storyline in the real world.
While The Master is not the easiest film to view or process, its nuanced performances and flawless craftsmanship will surely have us talking about it come Oscar season.