The Master, the sixth film from American director Paul Thomas Anderson, insinuates itself. It creeps in on you from the edges. It infers instead of making direct statements. It’s impressionistic. Teasing. Curious. It feels unusual because it goes against the standard values of serious Hollywood film-making. It leaves open questions, values character portrait over dramatic plotting, feels more like a novel than a movie, capturing a feeling, a mood, a time. It worms its way in, insidiously. It’s also stunning.
Joaquin Phoenix plays drifter Freddie Quell. He’s a former navy man, unsettled and lost in post-war America. He spends the late years of the 40’s coasting job to job, getting into fights, making his own moonshine, agitating others. Phoenix makes him fascinating to watch. It’s an incredibly physical performance, almost overwhelmingly so. Quell ambles around the screen like an arthritic ape, like Popeye’s weedy sibling. His jaw juts. His eyes search for understanding. Quell appears to be an almost primitive version of man. Immature. A troubled teen grown older.
He meets thinking man Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) when he gatecrashes a party on a luxurious boat. Dodd is a writer who attempts to use regression methods to help people. He is the leader of The Cause. His followers call him ‘Master’. Instead of reproaching Quell for his intrusion, he offers to help him. The Master then follows the relationship between the two men. How one needs the other and vice-versa. You might call it the art-house bromance of the year. They are very different men – where Quell is all impulse, Dodd is more measured, exacting, charismatic. In fact, against expectation, Dodd is one of Hoffman’s least showy performances. It is another great performance nonetheless.
Much has been made about how Dodd and The Cause are a riff on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, but the film isn’t about such comparisons. You can make them if you want, but they’re unnecessary. The Master more simply presents us two men looking for meaning in things, meaning in people. Both men are driven to search. It’s 1950 and America is prosperous, but where is it going? In 2007’s There Will Be Blood Anderson showed us an American pioneer half a century earlier ruthlessly coveting power. Quell and Dodd’s quest is more modern. They covet knowledge. Their quest is harder.
Commonly women are peripheral in Anderson’s films. There Will Be Blood had barely any women at all. In The Master there is a greater feminine presence. Here it is still on the fringes, however it is critically influential. For Quell, his inner torments seem bound to an unreconciled romance from his past before the war; a connection his heart wasn’t ready to accept. For Dodd it is insinuated that much of his ‘work’ comes from his steely wife Peggy (Amy Adams). In one scene she dictates as Dodd types. But is he typing her words? Is she the power behind the throne and Dodd really a charlatan? Anderson gives us no definitive answer. However, in other scenes, she seems just as capable and versed in Dodd’s ‘processing’ exercises as the master himself.
Speaking of ‘processing’, special mention has to be made of the sequence in which Dodd first applies his approach to Quell. It is astonishing. Hoffman’s quietly focused performance collides with Phoenix’s ramshackle, unpredictable force. Few scenes this year have been so utterly compelling. Dodd pressures Quell not to blink. In the audience, we don’t blink either. Phoenix’s face is framed in the dark as rapid-fire questions from Dodd pry revealing answers from Quell. It is mesmeric. A peak.
The Master as a whole feels strange. A flavour of something instead of the whole thing. Indeed several moments from the trailer do not feature, such as Quell drumming on a window, or Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) raising a gun. Anderson and his editors Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty have decided this is the amount of the story we’re going to get. It feels carefully calculated. Again, something inferred as opposed to defined. We are invited to participate and draw our own conclusions.
It looks amazing. Probably the most beautiful film I’ve seen at the cinema all year. Here Anderson makes a change in his cinematographer from previous films. Mihai Malaimare Jr replacing his usual partner Robert Elswitt. I didn’t think Anderson could top the visual romance of There Will Be Blood, but, on aesthetic terms, The Master does trump it. Jonny Greenwood’s score is also superb, informing the images without distracting, his trademark clicks and clacks evoking Quell’s volatile energy. In fact, on all technical levels, The Master is a tour de force. American film-making at its absolute finest.
How much you’ll like The Master therefore will ultimately come down to how satisfying you find its content. There are moments, performances, visuals here that will remain with you afterward, making the film feel like another white-hot classic. However – and this is an important caveat – they are pieces in an uneasy whole, incomplete like Quell’s own temperament, pocked by uncertainties. Like Dodd’s ‘facts’, facts that, one senses, even he doesn’t believe in. I’ve peppered these paragraphs with superlatives, and I really did enjoy The Master thoroughly. It fascinated me. And yet, at the same time I feel oddly detached from what I saw, as if forced to abandon a jigsaw before it could be completed.
But maybe the jigsaw doesn’t have a solution. This is, I think, Anderson’s intention. A film about people striving to know things, to understand and define things about themselves and the human condition at large which are too vast for their capabilities. Pioneers of the mind and subconscious who are grappling in the dark, grappling with themselves. The Master feels divisive, and I can imagine people cheering for this movie just as loudly as others boo. Is Dodd just an empty shirt? Is Anderson? If it is all a lie, all just nothing really, I was captivated by it nonetheless. And isn’t that enough?