Back when little was known about The Master, the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson, it made sense to assume that the movie’s rumored subject matter about a Scientology-like religious organization would be an ideal backdrop for many of the director’s favorite themes – unorthodox familial bonds, self-destructive obsessions, and solidarity among society’s outcasts. Instead, Anderson has again cast one of his irresistible lures to catch our attention and tell a completely different kind of story than the one we expected. Tantalizing and scandalous from afar, The Master is a gripping portrait of individual anguish in extreme close-up.
Everything about The Master is uncomfortably intimate, starting with an early scene of alcoholic US Navy vet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) pleasuring himself – with back to camera – on a beach amongst his colleagues. Quell is a man adrift in a post-World War II nation where, despite the assurances of a military psychologist, he finds it difficult to adjust to civilian life and seize the prosperity that’s supposed to be there for the taking. Instead, he drifts toward the west coast and a chance encounter with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic creator of a religious movement and pseudo-scientific self help system called The Cause.
It is more effective to describe The Master in terms of its core character relationship rather than its plot. Through a strange sort of kismet (and mutual enjoyment of Freddie’s bathtub gin culled together from whatever chemicals are lying about) these two men form an unlikely bond that is tested by Dodd’s growing paternal influence over the wild, animalistic Freddie. Dodd is in fact fond of calling Freddie a “silly animal” when he misbehaves and in many ways treats Freddie exactly like a zoo animal or laboratory specimen, as if Dodd were a latter-day Dr. Moreau conducting the ultimate behavioral experiment (returning man to his “state of Perfect,” he intones in his taped lectures). They embody the push-pull of civilization and savagery, two points on the evolutionary spectrum separated by an immense intellectual void.
Hoffman is every bit the scholar in his role. He is as capable of evoking a warm, professorial feeling as he is pressing his fiery convictions down upon his skeptics. But where Hoffman is the fuse, Phoenix is the fuel. His explosive performance recalls the brawny Method acting of Dean and Brando (who became huge stars shortly after the time of the film’s setting) infused with postpartum guilt and driven by an uncontrollable fury. Phoenix seems to be accessing the inaccessible with every mumbled regret and drowsy facial expression, capturing the essence of a man in the midst of intense suffering: a marooned sailor drowning on dry land.
Together, Hoffman and Phoenix are a powerful compound. It’s one that nearly overpowers the rest of the film, including a good but miscast Amy Adams as Dodd’s stern wife. The Master’s elliptical structure entices and intrigues but also obscures meaning, with Anderson eschewing his own cult of personality in crafting his most difficult and oblique film to date. Absent the ironic detachment and go-go enthusiasm of Boogie Nights or the savage historicism and political overtones of There Will Be Blood, it may be challenging for audiences to fully embrace The Master. However, considering the ferocious performances and Anderson’s characteristic emotional ruthlessness, viewers would be well advised against clinging too tightly.
“The Master” opened in New York and Los Angeles last week, and expands nationwide this Friday.