by Jase Howell
“The Master” is the latest film from oft-adventurous director Paul Thomas Anderson. The endeavor is indeed ambitious and pushes boundaries — just not the way you may anticipate Anderson doing.
Anderson is one of the best in the business when it comes to character studies; in fact, he sometimes relies strictly on characters as opposed to plots to propel his films. His debut, “Hard Eight,” was a good example of this, but it was his epic behind-the-scene look at the pornographic film industry, “Boogie Nights,” that put him on the map. Anderson followed that success with “Magnolia,” another film shifting around a menagerie of characters and stories in Southern California. “Punch Drunk Love” with Adam Sandler was either loved or hated, depending on the critic. The film was a little off-center, but I found it original.
Then came “There Will be Blood,” Anderson’s crowning success that earned Daniel Day-Lewis a Best Actor Oscar. In the epic film based on Upton Sinclair’s work, Anderson mined the oil industry, greed and religion.
So what does “The Master” hold for audiences? Well, spellbinding performances in a film that will most likely be equally loved and loathed.
“The Master” opens with Navy Seaman Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) on an island that’s never really identified, but then again, much of the end of the World War II scenes are murky at best. It’s difficult to say whether Anderson didn’t deem them necessary or budgeting was tight (most likely the latter) but what we quickly learn about Freddie is that he is very unstable. He drinks heavily — making his own moonshine out of torpedo fuel — and you see as the film goes on that he can make a concoction out of pretty much anything. He seems completely isolated with the exception of lewd advances toward women, or as in the opening scenes women made of sand on the beach. Has the war done this too him or has he always been like this? This is one of the many questions this film will invite, yet never really answer.
Once Freddie is back home in America he is a very confused soul suffering in the aftermath of the war. He gets a job as department store photographer, but that doesn’t last long. He works as a migrant worker in the agricultural fields of California, but that doesn’t last long either. Eventually, hopped on some booze made from who knows what, he ends up sneaking aboard a yacht. A party on the boat makes his arrival unnoticed, and he slips down into the bowels of the craft. This is where Freddie’s life will take a twist.
Freddie awakens the next morning and is taken to see the ship’s captain, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Is Dodd upset at the drifter crashing his boat? No, in fact he is quite infatuated with the gruff Quell. As the plot will have it, Dodd is a traveling cult figure shilling a sort of Scientology-type religion, and in Freddie he sees a perfect specimen. Dodd’s persona involves taking human standards to a higher level, and what better place to start than with broken, vulgar, alcoholic former sailor. Thus, we more or less have the basic premise of the film.
Freddie becomes Dodd’s lab rat because he basically he has nowhere else to go, and in the infancy of their friendship he may even believe in Dodd’s theories, although Dodd seems to be making them up as he goes along. Freddie is soon considered a member of this traveling circus that goes from city to city spreading their word to mostly wealthy widows or spinsters. Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), is fiercely loyal to “the cause” even though she may believe it be a complete sham. Adams is terrific, delivering a quiet yet shrewd performance.
“The Master” is mostly predicated on Phoenix and Hoffman, and the two definitely make this a worthwhile trip to the theater. The back-and-forth between serene conversations to absolute maniacal blow-outs while the two men push each other’s buttons tests the level of both characters’ sanity at times. Hoffman is right at home playing the magnetic and charming Dodd, mesmerizing all who will listen to his teachings, but even better in the rare scenes where he loses his composure and is shown for what he truly is; but this film really belongs to Phoenix, who was supposed to have retired from acting. It is a good thing he didn’t because this is without a doubt his best performance and will likely make it difficult for anyone to top him for Best Actor come awards season. His portrayal of the lost vet caged up in his own mind and doomed to a life as a drifting loner is nothing short of greatness. It is a performance you will remember for long while.
“The Master” is at its core a character study relying solely on the banter, actions and re-actions between two deeply lost individuals looking for light at the end of the tunnel; and Anderson makes it spellbinding from start to finish. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it requires patience and appreciation for performances and dialogue over action, but the performances validate the film for almost any viewer. This may not be Anderson’s greatest work to date, but he proves once again he can certainly get the absolute best from his performers.