It’s hard to place where exactly “The Master” falls within Paul Thomas Anderson’s prolific canon of work. If it were any other director, you could easily label it as their premiere exercise of character study, beautifully filmed and featuring a pair of the finest actors of their (or any other) generation. With PTA, however, that sentiment rings true for just about all of his films. So, in terms of a character study, how does this film stand apart?
In “The Master,” we aren’t really able to determine which character the story is truly about. Does it focus more on the mind of mad naval veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) or the egotistical cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman)? As far as the actors portraying them, is it even possible to distinguish one of these performances as stronger than the other? Joaquin Phoenix (fresh off a fake retirement/mental breakdown) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (a few years prior to his tragic death) turn in some of the finest individual performances of their careers. However, in an act of almost inexplicable genius, Anderson doesn’t reveal the full complexity of each character until the two share the screen together.
The narrative of the film can be marked by a series of conversations, a storytelling tactic which is deftly highlighted in these two teasers. From interviews to interrogations to fictionalized versions of the dreaded “Joburg Sec Check,” we come to realize that these characters are not actually such avid, unique personalities, but one and the same.
It is for this reason that the personalities of these two protagonists never seem fully realized as long as they are apart. Each represents a different ideology. Quell is the rogue, unable to keep up with life. He throws himself to the whims of the universe and lets them take him wherever they may as he struggles to hang on. Dodd is the exact opposite, a man not only obsessed with discovering the secret to controlling his own life, but one who actually has the gall to claim he has found it for the entirety of mankind. Together they make up the single protagonist of PTA’s most interesting character study.
Together, they are everything.