“The Master”: Another Win for Paul Thomas Anderson
“The Master” is quite a film to behold. It grabs viewers by the throat, tosses them around for a while, and then throws them to the ground without ever really explaining why. In this day and age, though, there’s nothing wrong with that. This is the first film of the year that has really challenged audiences to engage with its unique story without giving them all the facts. It’s a poetic and polarizing work that will surely garner just as much antipathy as it does acclaim.
Though not quite as strong as his masterpiece, “There Will Be Blood,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth outing as director proves his dedication to risk by taking the basic Hollywood narrative structure and tossing it out the window. Despite its slow burn style, even “There Will Be Blood” made a good deal of sense. With “The Master,” PTA deals less with greed or madness and instead plays with the concepts of man as beast, secular conflicts, and the meanings different men bestow upon their own lives. Don’t worry if you’re already confused; digesting the film while watching it was not an easy (or even a necessarily accomplishable) task.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) returns from the front lines of World War II having no real direction in his life. He boozes from his hazardous homemade concoctions, lusts with an animalistic compulsion, and wanders from place to place somehow finding work everywhere he turns. After accidently poisoning an old man with one of his toxic creations, Freddie flees until he stumbles upon a yacht heading to New York City, which he boards. On the vessel, he encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the impossibly charismatic leader of a philosophical movement known as “The Cause.” Dodd sees something unique in Freddie and, despite his erratic behavior, asks him to help with his experiments and preach the teachings of his movement. Over the course of the film, Dodd attempts to cure Freddie’s alcoholism and violent nature, and whether or not he can heal him is the biggest question lingering over everyone who witnesses their developing relationship.
Once again working with the father/son relationship as the basis for his film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s writing and directing are as impeccable as ever. The narrative transforms into a puzzle, with seemingly random jumps into non-linear form and a few great subjective moments from within Freddie’s mind. The visual poetry follows the same dynamic symmetry and motifs from “There Will Be Blood,” but in “The Master” the images tend to fall slightly flat at times. There’s really nothing to complain about, however, as this was the first film in 12 years to be shot in 70mm. If you’re lucky enough to attend one of these limited-engagement screenings, I would highly recommend it. You likely won’t see a film as beautiful as this for quite a long time.
The soundtrack is once again composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and provides a haunting and appropriately hypnotic atmosphere revolving around Freddie Quell’s feral mind. Adding a sound similar to his brooding score for “There Will Be Blood,” Greenwood’s slow builds and cacophonous finales accentuate Freddie’s yearning for purpose juxtaposed with his struggle against alcoholism and sexual craving.
But when you strip away the music, the images, the writing, and the direction, what you have left is the true force that drives the film forward: Phoenix and Hoffman. Both are shoe-ins for nominations at this year’s Academy Awards; Phoenix’s Quell will likely be a career-defining performance. Quell carries himself with a strange step, back arched, and mouth pushed to the side, almost gasping for air. He doesn’t know where he’s heading, nor does he really care, at least not until he finds Hoffman’s Dodd. Hoffman crafts a charming and enigmatic leader who is so wonderfully subdued that when we reach the two points in the film in which he screams to the heavens in a feeble defense of his crazed philosophy, we understand that fear and shame are the most crippling weaknesses for this so called “Master.”
This is what makes Phoenix and Hoffman’s dynamic so extremely engaging. Quell lets Dodd work on him so he can kill some time as he tries to find meaning in his life, while Dodd works on Quell to try and heal the beast as he attempts to prove his own theories to others as well as to himself. Whether either of these men actually achieves his goals will be up for debate among viewers long after the screen goes dark.
Overall, “The Master” is a grand achievement that will leave viewers puzzled and desirous for more. It requires a second viewing, but having ruminated on the film over the weekend, I can honestly say it will only grow better with time and contemplation.