Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Freddie Quell), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Lancaster Dodd), Amy Adams (Peggy Dodd), Jesse Plemons (Val Dodd), Ambyr Childers (Elizabeth Dodd), Rami Malek (Clark), Laura Dern (Helen Sullivan), Madisen Beaty (Doris Solstad), Amy Ferguson (Martha the Salesgirl), Christopher Evan Welch (John More).
When we first meet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), we know there is something different about him. Thin as a rail, with a strange posture and walk, Freddie is all sharp angles when he moves – and he stands out from the other sailors standing around the beach, on brief leave from their jobs onboard a WWII ship in the Pacific. When the other sailors make a sand statute of a naked woman, Freddie barges in, and feigns having sex with it – at first to muted laughs, but then he goes on too long, and everyone around him becomes silent – before he sulks off, and masturbates into the sea by himself. Back aboard the ship, as a radio announces the end of the war, Freddie immediately starts draining the torpedoes of their fuel – to make his strange alcoholic concoctions. While going through a Rorschach test, in a VA hospital after the war because apparently he has a “nervous condition”, he sees nothing but dicks and pussies in the ink blots. We see him briefly at two jobs after the war – as a photographer at a department store where he drinks heavily, quickly seduces a co-worker and gets in a violent, unprovoked fight with a client, and as a migrant worker, picking cabbage, which he has to flee because one of his drinks may have killed another work. After fleeing, he sees a yacht in harbor in San Francisco, and simply climbs aboard. That decision affects everything that happens to Freddie – and everything that happens in Paul Thomas Anderson’s challenging, brilliant film The Master – over the next few years of his life. And yet, no matter what happens to and around him, Freddie remains – stubbornly and resolutely – Freddie.
That yacht belongs to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), or at least Dodd says it does. Instead of getting angry at Freddie, Dodd takes him into his cabin, where he introduces himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, an experimental philosopher, but most of all a man, just like you, looking for answers”. He likes the strange drink that Freddie has brought along with him – and he wants more. The yacht is travelling from San Francisco to New York, by way of the Panama Canal, and Dodd’s daughter is going to be married on board. This is a party, and Dodd invites Freddie to join them. By the end of the journey, Dodd will look at Freddie as “one of them” – although while Freddie acts as if he believes, what Freddie actually thinks is anyone’s guess.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, The Master is apparently the “Scientology” movie, and Dodd is based on their founder L. Ron Hubbard. Yet Anderson is not really interested in the inner workings of Scientology and what they believe. Yes, you get the “gist” of it – that man is haunted by their past lives, and they must free themselves of their burden so they can become the “perfect” creations they are meant to be. And there are multiple scenes in the movie when Dodd has to “process” Freddie to understand what needs to be done to “free” him, and then Dodd has multiple exercises that he forces Freddie to perform to achieve this goal. Yet Anderson is not really interested in “debunking” Scientology (much to the frustration of some critics, like Roger Ebert), because Anderson is interested in bigger things. American history is full of people like L. Ron Hubbard or Lancaster Dodd, who found “new religions”. Whether it’s Mormons or snake charmers or people speaking in tongues or Jim Jones and the People’s Church, the Branch Davidians or Scientology, these men come up with something new, and get followers – sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don’t. But what the share is charisma and confidence. You cannot, as one man at a party who challenges Dodd tries to, use logic on them or their followers, because belief – whether in a new religious movement or in one of the “old” religions do not require logic – but belief in something greater than logic. The people who follow Dodd are no different than any other religious person – they just believe in something else.
A less ambitious movie would use Freddie merely as a foil for Dodd. We see this all the time, where the larger than life character needs a more down to earth, relatable character to tell their story – to get the audience to relate to them, and hence give them a way into the movie. Think of something like The Last King of Scotland, where the main character is not Forrest Whitaker’s Idi Admin, but rather James McAvoy’s Scottish doctor, who gives the audience someone to relate to, and a way to process Idi Admin himself. But Anderson doesn’t do that in The Master. Freddie is, in some ways, more complicated than Dodd. He certainly is harder to get real read on. Yes, when he joins “The Cause”, he seems to be loyal to Dodd – he is willing to fight anyone who questions him, and he goes through every test that Dodd puts him through. Freddie is searching for something, and thinks Dodd may have the answer. But Freddie cannot change who he is – and maybe doesn’t really want to. The turning point for him may well be when he tells Dodd’s son that his father is talking and he should listen because maybe he could learn something, to which Dodd’s son simply replies “He’s making it up as he goes along. Can’t you see that?” The Master doesn’t condemn Dodd for this – in fact it implies that Dodd is simply doing what we all do. When Freddie accepts this, he may realize that he no longer needs Dodd to show him something greater.
And yet, in a strange way, Freddie will always need Dodd – and Dodd will always need Freddie. Although on the surface, these two seem like polar opposites, on a deeper level they are very similar (in fact, the final shot in the movie may imply something deeper connection between the two). Though the rest of the people in The Cause see Freddie as a hopeless case that should be cut out, Dodd can never do that. Freddie, while on the surface is the very animal that Dodd is preaching that man must evolve away from, is on some level, the very person Dodd wishes us to be. As he says late in the movie “If you’ve figured out how to live without a master Freddie, please let us know how. You’d be the first”. And it is the very fact that Freddie remains so stubbornly himself no matter what situation he’s in, that makes Dodd think this. And Freddie needs Dodd because he is the only one who doesn’t see him as an animal – a man acting purely on his own primal instincts. While he preaches that Freddie needs to evolve, he really becomes Freddie’s greatest enabler – the person who lets Freddie be precisely who he is.
The Master is a tricky film. Some people are going to have problems with the movie because it doesn’t spell everything out for the audience – it leaves things mysterious. To me, this is not a flaw in the movie, but one of its strengths – one of the reasons I find myself, days after seeing the film, thinking about it constantly. The Master represents another step forward for Paul Thomas Anderson – already, arguably, the finest director working in America today. The film has much in common with his previous film, There Will Be Blood, but is more mysterious, less intent on giving us the violent exclamation mark of an ending – a definitive ending if you will – to his movie. The final scene between Freddie and Dodd starts much like the final scene between Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano in that film – in an office, with one man behind a huge desk, and while there is violence in this scene, it is emotional violence – violence meted out with words and not a bowling pin, but the effect is just as devastating.
The performances in the movie are all great. Phoenix, returning to film after a few years to recover from whatever real or fake meltdown he had that led to Casey Affleck’s strange film I’m Still Here, delivers the type of performance I always thought he eventually would. His Freddie is a bundle of nervous, violent, sexual energy that explodes at times. He physicality in the role in wonderful – from his rail thin body, that he holds at odd angles, to his scarred lip, that he turns into a kind of menacing, cruel, mocking smirk and defense mechanism, Freddie becomes the most fascinating character in any movie this year – you spend the movie trying to get inside his head, which you only do by degrees. Not to be outdone, longtime Anderson collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers a performance of calm fury. He speaks more than Freddie does, and can wax eloquent and sound intelligent but he is ultimately a salesman. He, like Freddie, lets his guard slip occasionally – sometimes in ways everyone can see (lashing out at the doubter at the party, or yelling at longtime supporter, a great Laura Dern, who questions why they are changing things), and other ways more subtlety – often when it’s just Freddie and Dodd – private scenes that highlight their complicated relationship. If both actors win Oscars this year, they will be richly deserved. And then there is Amy Adams, who is great in a more subtle way than Phoenix or Hoffman. She is ever present in the movie – often in the background with her outwardly demeanor, but she never misses a thing. Her manipulation of Dodd is there, but buried, in their every scene together – or once becoming overt. When Dodd talks of Freddie being the first to serve no master, he may well being referring to himself and his relationship with his wife.
Anderson also painstakingly recreates the 1940s and 50s America – with pitch perfect art direction and costume design. This is the first movie since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) to be shot in 65MM (and if you are near a theater showing it in 70MM see it in that format). This allows a different, distinctive color palette that Anderson uses magnificently. The cinematography is the best of the year – and Anderson, as always, favors long, unbroken shots. While in films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia, his camera was always restless, here it is often unmoving, but the framing is precise (take a magnificent sequence in jail with Phoenix and Hoffman in adjoining cells for example).
Paul Thomas Anderson is the best filmmaker working today – and one of the few who shows growth between each one of his films. The Master is not as immediate or visceral as his last film, There Will Be Blood, but is more controlled, more complex, more willing to simply let things play out without that violent exclamation point. This will frustrate some viewers, who want that resolution. But for me, it simply makes the film more mysterious. I doubt there will be a better film this year than The Master.