You end up walking away with more questions than answers as The Master was perplexing as well as absorbing, but above all, it was hypnotic.
You will be hard pressed to find a film this year that is better acted or better crafted than Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. In Anderson’s sixth directorial film comes an epic tale of made up religion that has earmarks of a cult and it’s radical followers. Even though the film never comes out and says it directly, the film at the very least resembles that of Scientology. You end up walking away with more questions than answers as The Master was perplexing as well as absorbing, but above all, it was hypnotic.
From the very beginning we see that Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has a drinking problem as well as a troubled sexual past that may explain his erratic behavior. To say that Freddie has a problem with drinking is putting it lightly. He is literally poisoning himself with what he drinks as often times he makes his concoctions with whatever is within reach; sometimes that means paint thinner. As his service in the Navy ends with the end of World War II, he stumbles from job to job until one night he walks aboard a large yacht.
Unbeknownst to him, the yacht belongs to a man named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Soon enough Freddie meets Dodd, who people call the master, and finds out that he is a self-proclaimed jack of all trades; “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man.” Dodd is eager to take Freddie under his wing. Freddie, a troubled soul looking for anything to cling on to, has no problems with that.
I found it especially interesting when Dodd introduces his family someone new that he first introduces Freddie before the rest of his family. In fact, the last person he acknowledges is his son, who does not believe what his father his preaching and at one point says, “Can’t you see what he is doing? He is making things up as he goes along.” The connection between the two only grows the more Freddie gets involved.
Freddie is not afraid to beat people up who question what Dodd is preaching. I think that speaks to how much he wanted to attach and be part of something. However, by the end you start to wonder if Freddie is being people up because he is afraid that the questioners are correct. Slowly, it is slightly implied that he may be casting his own doubts on Dodd, like when he is listening to him speak about how laughter is the secret on two separate occasions.
There is a scene early on when Lancaster Dodd interviews Freddie with intrusive questions about his past that is quite possibly the best scene in any film of this year. Emotions fill the screen as you see tears roll down Freddie’s eyes and the vein in his forehead as he screams in anger. It is the kind of scene that takes the air out of the room and makes your knuckles hurt from tension.
The Master had a couple of standout scenes where you get a glimpse of how Freddie sees the world. The obvious scene is when a roomful of people are cheering on Dodd dancing, Freddie sees every woman in the room naked. Another eerie but more subtle moment is when Dodd’s wife asks Freddie to look into her eyes and then change the color of them. You can notice that her eyes do in fact change.
Joaquin Phoenix puts on a performance that I do not think will be matched in his career again. From the very first teaser trailer it was pretty evident that his character is insane. My instant reaction from the little bit that I saw then was this could easily be an Oscar worthy performance by him. Now after seeing the film and his full performance, it only reaffirms my initial reaction.
Nearly matching the phenomenal performance of Phoenix was Philip Seymour Hoffman as the charismatic religious leader. He comes off as a confident speaker that can win over most doubters with his charm but you can tell that he is masking his own problems. In private there are some moments when he relies on his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) to guide him and tell him everything is going to be okay.
The Master felt almost like it was a companion piece to There Will Be Blood (which is currently one of only two perfectly rated films on Way Too Indie). The overall tone felt very much the same courtesy of Jonny Greenwood’s score in both films. But also the subject matter is similar; two powerful leaders who look to take advantage of the weak and powerless. Even though Paul Thomas Anderson replaced his go-to cinematographer Robert Elswit with Mihai Malaimare Jr. for this film, there were many epic shots including some outside tracking shots similar to ones that worked so well in There Will Be Blood.
While The Master did not quite have the instant masterpiece feeling after watching it as There Will Be Blood did, it certainly adds to the already impressive arsenal of films done by Paul Thomas Anderson. He is a modern day master (no pun intended) filmmaker that will years for now be studied and compared to. What makes this film work is that it is as ambiguous to itself just as the characters are portrayed in the film. The Master demands the viewer to read between the lines the whole time with implications but never answers questions for you. The last scene is a perfect example of this as it opens up a different theory that was mentioned earlier in the film depending how you interpret it. It is a challenging but rewarding film if you are willing to connect the dots yourself.