Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood) returns to our cinema screens with a wonderful, perplexing yet phenomenally engaging new film: The Master. It’s a film that I’m not quite sure what to make of, but one that I’ve really been thinking about ever since seeing it. It’s a hard movie to shake, one that I found to be weirdly captivating despite it’s often stately, leisurely pacing. Without question it’s the work of a true master of cinema.
Joaquin Phoenix (appearing in his first film since 2008, not counting his weird sort-of-not-really documentary I’m Still Here) plays Freddie Quell. A navy-man during World War II, in the film’s opening section we watch Freddie repeatedly trying and failing to make a go of any sort of regular life in the years after the war. He seems to be suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress, though the film lets us draw our own conclusions. He’s clearly unstable, an angry, intense, young man with a serious habit of heavy-drinking. Out of work, he stows away on a boat that it turns out is hosting a lengthy excursion to sea by a man named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-described “writer, doctor, nuclear-physicist, and theoretical philosopher.” Despite their being complete opposites in nearly every way, Freddie and Mr. Dodd have an immediate connection. They bond over their love of the potent alcohol that Freddie likes to whip up, and while Dodd feels he can help Freddie and straighten him out, Freddie seems to find in Dodd a friend and father figure absent in his life.
As soon as one of Dodd’s followers refers to him as “master,” we know there might be another side to this charismatic writer and speaker. Indeed, as Freddie (and the audience) spends more time with Dodd and his close-knit family and followers who seem to be constantly with him, we begin to see how many in his group are following his writings and his philosophies as a complete way of life. Much has been made over whether the film is or isn’t based on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. I did not read the film as an attack on scientology in specific, nor did I feel the point of the film was in critiquing any religion or cult. (And please note that I am not equating the two!!) There are definitely moments when one might raise one’s eyebrows at certain things we see Dodd’s followers saying or doing. The film shows the positive power of the community of close-knit followers who surround the man they call “master,” and also the dangers of creeping, unquestioning group-think.
But it seems to me that all of those elemnts are interesting layers to The Master, but not the film’s point. This is not just a parable about cults. I’d argue The Master is far more concerned with being a character study of two men, Freddie and Lancaster Dodd: two incredibly powerful, strong-willed personalities who, to the surprise of them both, find their lives entangled.
Both Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman do magnificent work in the film. I find myself running hot and cold, sometimes, on Mr. Phoenix as an actor, but he is stupendous here. He creates, in Freddie, a singularly bizarre individual. Physically Mr. Phoenix seems to twist up his body, forcing his limbs into odd angles. Freddie is a skinny, gangly fellow, terribly awkward to look at even when he’s wearing nice clothes. In the film, Mr. Phoenix always seems to have his arms bent out at an odd angle, and his neck and back stooped and twisted in a peculiar way. He also gives Freddie an unusual voice, gargling his words together — it makes the character a bit hard to understand at times, but all together it’s a picture of a remarkable physical performance. I also found myself captivated by Mr. Phoenix’s eyes. He is able to transform Freddie from handsome and funny into a horrifying, scary creature with just a slight shift in his eyes. It’s really something.
Mr. Hoffman, of course, is also magnificent, and I would expect no less. I can’t remember the last film in which he has appeared in which Mr. Hoffman hasn’t knocked it out of the park. His Lancaster Dodd is not a moustache-twirling villain, nor is he a loony-tunes crazy-person. Yes, we might think his ideas about time-travelling through past lives to be rather nuts, but Dodd almost always comes across as a perfectly serious, intelligent, rational fellow. Once or twice Mr. Hoffman lets that facade crack and we could perhaps suspect that, as Dodd’s son accuses him of at one point, “he’s just making it all up as he goes along.” But the film treads very lightly on that accusation. Dodd’s desire to help Freddie appears to be genuine, as does the friendship he develops with him. I don’t think the film depicts Dodd as a con-man — it seems to me that he genuinely believes his ideas. (Perhaps that makes him more of a crazy-person than someone who is just saying wild things to con people out of their admiration and money might be, though less despicable in my mind.)
I started to understand the power of the story I was watching in one of the early scenes that Mr. Phoenix and Mr. Hoffman share, when Dodd first begins to “process” Freddie by asking him a series of questions about his past. The two actors are on fire in that scene, and as we explore both men’s personalities and pasts in that encounter, I found myself magnetized by what I was watching. On-screen are two phenomenal actors performing a tight script, under the guiding hand of a great director — it’s amazing stuff to behold.
Amy Adams is marvelous as always as Dodd’s young wife, Peggy. She almost immediately sees Freddie as a possible danger to her husband, but luckily the film doesn’t resort to any obvious plot twists with her as the Lady Macbeth figure. Instead, Peggy is almost one of the most pitiable figures in the film, as she seems hopefulessly devoted to her husband’s ideas to the exclusion of all else. I loved seeing Rami Malek, an actor whose name I didn’t know but who I recognized immediately from his work as “Snafu” in The Pacific (I wrote a little bit about that HBO series here and here). Laura Dern pops up as another devotee of the master’s, and she’s great fun in her scenes.
I also have to remark about the film’s fantastic, quite idiosyncratic score. Composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, the score is beautiful and haunting. There’s a lot of jazz in the music, and it’s enjoyably toe-tapping at times when one might not expect. The score is a huge piece of the over-all tapestry of tone and emotion that Paul Thomas Anderson has created in his film, and I was really quite taken with it.
From watching the trailers, and the first half of the film, I thought I knew exactly where the story of The Master was going. We’ve seen Dodd “adopt” Freddie, a bull-in-a-china-shop if ever there was one, and Freddie, a lost soul, seems to find stability and guidance in Dodd’s orbit. Obviously, I thought, the second half of the film will be the fireworks we’ll see when Freddie feels let down by Dodd (either because he discovers he’s a sham or because they fall out over some other reason, maybe over a woman). For sure, I thought, we’ll see Freddie the pit-bull’s anger now directed not at Dodd’s enemies, but at Dodd himself. Let the explosions begin.
But I was surprised and intrigued to discover that’s not at all the way the story of The Master unfolds. First of all, as I wrote above, the film never really pokes any major holes in Dodd’s beliefs or leadership. We don’t discover that he’s a sham or a con-man. The audience might conclude, from his behavior, that he is a lunatic or pathetic or both, but there isn’t any simplistic “oh, now Freddie discovers the truth about Dodd!!” moment. The two men drift apart in the film’s third act, but it’s a much more subtle, organic process.
In my introductory sentence I called The Master perplexing, and in that I’m focusing on the film’s final thirty minutes. I didn’t find it overly clear why Freddie parts company from Dodd when he does, and when the two men do reunite after some time apart, when Dodd invites Freddie to his new school in England, the film is surprisingly ambivalent about the path Freddie chooses when offered a choice by his former master. But I sort of love that about the film! I’ve been thinking about the ending of the film non-stop since I saw it. I love that the film lets the audience draw our own conclusions, and in a way that feels like the film is allowing the audience to really engage with the story, rather than my feeling let-down by lazy story-telling. I’ll also note that I am positively tickled by the film’s final scene. I won’t spoil it, I’ll just say that Freddie repurposes some phraseology from earlier in the film in a fantastic way.
This is a great film and it stars two actors at the absolute top of their game. It’s a challenging story, but I found it to be a richly rewarding one.