Even amongst its most wrenching scenes of unfettered anger and broken loyalty, a volatile sensuality nonetheless invades every frame of Paul Thomas Anderson’s arresting “The Master.” Populated by characters certain in their sexual and loving instincts yet stubborn in claiming responsibility for them, the film holds an unseen, persuasive force just off-screen to keep each on edge, never fully comfortable in their own skin. However, while the film’s narrative may point to faith as a cause and cure, the end result focuses instead on the reverberating pain in one’s past, and the oblique, often-maddening ways it manifests in the present through incredible performances and direction.
For Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, a truly unnerving revelation), both his faith and pain lie with women, and every smell, image, and suggestion that’s to do with them. When we’re first introduced to him, posted on WWII naval duty along a beachfront, he alternates between graphically discussing STD treatment tips, fashioning an anatomically correct woman in the sand, and masturbating into the ocean in plain view of his shipmates. As he returns home to California, apprehensively released by his superiors to 1950s California, the film carries this obsession as well, poring over every female body and word with the gaze heaped upon them. Aside from chasing women and picking up odd labor jobs, he is also an amateur alchemist, stealing paint thinner along with a variety of other substances to craft a bevy of homemade liquor. After an experiment during a Salinas work shift leaves a man poisoned, Freddie is run out of town by the other workers, and after a day’s drunken journey onto a luxury ship boasting a glamorous party, he finds himself in the company of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), known to his community of secretive followers as “The Master.” As Freddie listens to Lancaster deem himself a nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher, but above all an inquisitive man, he laughs, but Freddie notes within the exaggerated claims the conviction he so desperately lacks. “Come join us,” Lancaster beckons, ushering him aboard to meet his wife (Amy Adams) and son (Jesse Plemons), “but your memories aren’t invited.” And with that, the ship doors are closed, the men grow closer, and Freddie finds slow solace in Lancaster’s words that have gathered many already.
Memory indeed plays an integral part of Anderson’s narrative, as Freddie seeks to run from his tortured past (his father died from alcoholism, while his mother was institutionalized) while also wanting to repair it, but the emphasis is placed not so much on the events that the characters remember, but the charged emotions behind them. Of course, it’s inevitable that comparisons to “There Will Be Blood” will be made, since both films focus on entrepreneurial men seen from simultaneously a detached and intensely personal point of view, but those claims only go so far here. Jonny Greenwood’s score remains the most analogous aspect, with its wood-based, off-kilter compositions, but as a whole, “The Master” plays instead like the heart-stopping strings at the opening of 'TWBB,' only settled into a simmering pattern waiting for their next leap. With his incredible DoP, Mihai Malaimare Jr., and production design team of David Crank and Jack Fisk, Anderson absolutely nails every period detail he’s going for, from costumes down to the impeccably crafted visual style. Speaking of which, if there was any doubt Anderson had about shooting in 70mm, the opening shot of crystal-clear, vibrant blue sea should dismiss those thoughts entirely. There is an immediate and immersive quality to the image here, and combined with the film’s sustained atmosphere of dread, it is altogether an experience at which to marvel.
However, while those looking for a scathing indictment of any well-publicized religion are certain to find similarities, in some cases even direct parallels, Anderson never creates an atmosphere of outright derision. Instead, he crafts an enthralling attempt to track a personal guiding direction behind such a following, using Freddie’s relationship with Lancaster (as well as Adams’ nicely-handled ancillary menace) to drive home the conflict within the subject. In fact, it is in the rare scenes closest to direct analysis – such as when Hoffman displays his barely-veiled contempt of a dinner party skeptic – that feel reaching, providing on-the-nose dialogue that prove inferior to other sublime examples elsewhere. An early scene, in which Lancaster interviews Freddie about his past using a series of test questions, is unequivocally the film’s centerpiece, as both players raise each other’s game with every line and glance to ensure everyone that yes, these actors are capable of truly amazing things.
It is in these scenes where Greenwood’s score, along with the superb editing of Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty, shine the most, as Lancaster takes Freddie through “applications” in the homes-turned-treatment-centers of his followers. These sections fall into a fractured rhythm, as scenes fall off into flashbacks and flash-forwards, only to pick back up again twenty minutes later, and it is a credit to Hoffman and Phoenix’s performances that their emotional through-line never feels disjointed. However, it is in Freddie’s trials that the film begins to sag slightly. In Freddie Quell, Anderson has written an immensely passive character to center the film around, and while in its initial reels the sense of meandering spontaneity feels exciting and dangerous, in the latter half it simply feels listless. It is a sprawling film as well, jumping from California to Philadelphia, Phoenix to England, and combined with Phoenix’s wandering journey, the film’s 2+ hour runtime becomes increasingly felt. Combine that with an ending fit for many interpretations, and it adds up to an aggressively layered, distanced finish to a seemingly unresolved narrative.
As Freddie approaches Dodd’s ship in the film’s beginning, he notices on the side the name “Alethia,” the Greek word loosely translated as “truth.” Every character in the film is looking for such a goal, but ultimately, as exampled by Dodd’s exercises for his followers to “return to the womb,” nothing in these people’s lives since their conception will ever satisfy them fully. The world has battered them down, and while Anderson has hinted before at a pessimistic worldview, “The Master” may be his most subtle example of such, while leaving viewers to decide within his brilliant, disorienting latest whether he actually means it in the end. [B+]
Here's a take on the film from our colleague Anne Thompson.