We first meet Navy man Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) at the dawn of a new American era. World War II has just ended. America is preparing to venture into the idealism and boom of a post-war era. Men will soon be returning to their wives and girlfriends to start families.
As we soon see, however, there is little place in civilian life for the likes of the damaged Freddie. The opening scenes show him lounging around, wasting away in a fog of booze and other assorted substances. When he’s not committing lewd acts in public or instigating random, violent skirmishes, he’s concocting his own alcoholic spirits with MacGyver-like resourcefulness. Whether his behavior is the result of innate psychological trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder or a deathly combination of the two is never made explicit. In any case, while everyone around him lives in a world of peace, it’s clear that a violent war still rages within Freddy’s psyche.
One night, Freddie wanders onto a yacht party hosted by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Doubt”). Rather than tossing the drunk Freddie overboard, Dodd invites the man to participate in the next day’s festivities. It soon becomes clear that the other guest members are more than just friends and family: They are a congregation.
Dodd (or “Master” to his followers) has published a book entitled “The Cause.” In it, he postulates that our spirits have existed for trillions of years in various forms and vessels. According to the “Master,” over the years we have accumulated trauma that now forms the foundation for all of man’s suffering.
This amalgamation of Freud, spiritual hypnosis and science-fiction earns Dodd a loyal following but also leads others to brand him as an opportunistic cult leader. In fact, this polarization extends to Dodd’s own family. At one point, his son Val (Jesse Plemons, “Friday Night Lights”) expresses his belief that his father is “making this up as he goes along.”
Despite Freddie’s seemingly incurable alcohol problem, he becomes Dodd’s close companion, much to the displeasure of Dodd’s dedicated, if dour, wife Peggy (Amy Adams, “The Muppets”), who views Freddie as a bad influence. The film’s narrative subsequently fixates on the ebb and flow of Freddie and Dodd’s relationship. Sometimes loving, sometimes explosive, it’s a dynamic that is part father/son, part mentor/mentee and part protagonist/antagonist.
Since catching the attention of audiences and critics alike with his 1997 classic “Boogie Nights,” director Paul Thomas Anderson has never been one to take a conventional route in filmmaking. This film is no different. In many ways, “The Master” feels like a kind of spiritual sequel to “There Will Be Blood,” Anderson’s Oscar-winning film about a megalomaniacal oil tycoon’s quest for wealth and his ideological conflict with a local preacher. Like “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master” also explores the lengths that a man will go to for power and illustrates what happens when two individuals who should never have met come face to face.
Reviewing a film like “The Master” after one viewing feels, in many ways, like a fool’s errand. There’s much to talk about. Shot in 65 mm and presented in glorious widescreen, the film’s aesthetic beauty is undeniable. It’s what occurs in these meticulously crafted compositions, however, that will have people talking.
Aside from occasional flourishes, director Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous films were all fairly straight-forward. “The Master,” by contrast, revels in its cryptic nature. Concepts and relationships are brought in and then seemingly discarded. The film does not so much conclude; rather, it gently fades away. No doubt some audiences will emerge convinced that Anderson, much like Dodd, may be making this all up as he goes along.
Yet, even this meandering quality carries its own quiet sort of power. The film is as much an experience as it is a narrative. If most contemporary films are novels, this one feels like a poem with a narrative structure.
Visually, Anderson is firing on all cylinders, composing lengthy takes as well as subverting the film’s classical look with a feverous atmosphere. All the while, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s beautifully dissonant score punctuates these visuals, making everything seem that much more ominous.
A long-time staple of Anderson’s films, Philip Seymour Hoffman once again proves why he deserves his spot alongside the likes of Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis in the hallowed pantheon of great actors. Mustached with dashes of white hair and a face that seems perpetually reddened, Hoffman embodies Dodd’s furious charisma while also preserving an element of sleaze. Similarly, Amy Adam’s versatility as an actress is something to be admired and studied.
Yet, for all the talent on display, the heart and pulse of the movie resides with Joaquin Phoenix. With “The Master,” Phoenix has finally discovered a role to fit his offbeat persona. Channeling the likes of Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, he is nothing short of a revelation. With his hunched back, jutted out chin and a speech pattern that consists mostly of quasi-mumbling, Phoenix plays Freddie as a man contorted and crushed by his life’s experience.
“The Master” marks a definite evolution on Anderson’s part. No longer are his films a compilation of references from the master directors (Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman) that have come before him. Rather, he bursts from the gates having developed a voice and style all is own.
Simply said, “The Master” is as close to an American classic as we’re likely to get all year.
Much like Dodd’s sermons, it can feel unfocused and a bit unwieldy at times, yet, in the end, it makes you want to rise up and applaud uproariously.
â€” By Mark Rozeman