This is an elusive film, destined to stand out due to its surrounding circumstances. First, the anticipation, five years after 2007's There Will Be Blood; then the will-they-or-won’t-they dance with the Festival before it was announced (separate from other announcements) in the Competition line-up. In the meantime, The Master started popping up at surprise screenings in the United States before turning up in its full 70mm glory—an atypical approach, as was that of Samsara—at the actual Festival.
Expectations were sky-high, like nothing else around here in the past few years. And yet the film itself doesn’t, on its surface, justify that kind of momentum, because it tells the story of a man who is unable to find a sense of purpose. A WWII veteran clumsily forced back into society, Freddie Quell struggles to keep a job, drinks heavy cocktails (which include solvents, pills, and any kind of alcohol he can find), and is prone to angry outbursts. The Navy is not entirely to blame, though, since flashbacks show him in a similar predicament while on duty on the Pacific front. In fact, Joaquin Phoenix’s body and Anderson’s composition make it clear that Freddie and the space he inhabits will always be painfully at odds.
His meeting with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, a self-professed uber-thinker with a group of followers and a desire to find solutions to the world’s problems, quickly ignites another one of the director's trademark relationships involving fatherhood issues, conflicting trajectories, and opposing Weltanschauung. Only this time the dynamic appears to be more subtle. It’s quite obvious why Freddie would jump at the opportunity to follow such a master; Dodd’s grand delusions and clarity of intentions provide Freddie with the purpose he has been desperately seeking. More intriguing is Dodd’s fascination with the man who has entered his life: at first it’s mutual intoxication, as the two swap promises in exchange for the ‘good stuff’ that Freddie’s talent can provide. But Freddie is also an ever-regenerating blank slate onto which Dodd can project his quest, a renewable source of infatuation. A scene showing the two men hugging, shot from the side, demonstrates their dynamic perfectly: as Hoffman’s rotund form lunges into the space of the Other, Phoenix’s torso creates an emptiness to accommodate him.
The subtle dynamic between the two central characters informs the style and the pace of the whole film, making it hard to grasp. The core tension is generated by verbal repeition, as in the "applications" and exercises Dodd subjects his “guinea pig and protegé” to. Anderson replicates this with his use of depth in his shots, locating Phoenix behind elements in the foreground, placing him at odds with gorgeous backgrounds—courtesy of the film’s 70mm crispness and Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography—and generally stripping The Master of structural drive, an element which was crucial to There Will Be Blood. A fitting change, considering that Freddie Quell is the polar opposite of Daniel Plainview. The former is desperate to find a place, even though he doesn’t know how. The latter will stop at nothing to make his place, knowing all too well where to drill and what to hit. Plainview exuded directness, from the center of Anderson’s symmetry. Quell pathologically refuses progress (yet, sooner or later, everybody has to “pick a spot”…) and seems always well-positioned to disrupt those symmetries, starting with the twisted mess that Phoenix turned his face into for the role. Despite the enormous performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and despite the fact that the story is essentially about two men, Anderson cannot help focusing the film on its central character. There Will Be Blood was a radical departure in Anderson’s career; The Master displays similar scope and weight but has a more ambiguous texture.