The Master is and will be the most difficult film to discuss this year. And I mean that on a number of levels. Since first seeing it a week and a half ago, I’ve been asked consistently: A.) What it’s about, and B.) If I liked it. Two questions that are difficult to answer for different reasons. I’ve given the film a second go recently and having let it stewed accordingly, I can confidently assert that The Master is a fine film. A damn fine film, actually. That takes care of part B. As for A: hell if I know.
I’m getting a little ahead of myself, but so does the film, in a good way. Point in fact, The Master is writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson at his most Malickian. The film plays like The Tree of Life mixed with the fuck-it-all furor of the best of ‘60s European cinema. The narrative changes from character to character. Time, as it relates to chronology, is ignored. Dreams are presented as reality, and reality as dreams. In short, The Master is a rather ingenious exploration into the mind of a man who is insane.
To get back on plot track (because, really, I could describe how the movie is at far greater length than what the movie is), one night, Freddie stumbles onto a small, docked yacht and wakes up in the midst of The Master. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, as good as he’s ever been) wants to help Freddie. He wants to show him the path. He wants to show him The Cause.
The Cause is the religious and philosophical movement that Dodd has created. (Much as been made about the fact that The Master is based on L. Ron Hubbard, the man who pioneered Scientology. That seems fair, but is something I cannot accurately comment on, as I care to know next to nothing about that particular religion.) Through The Cause, Dodd is steadily looking for followers to guide on the path to peace, and Freddie is an impressionable, lost soul – the perfect kind of man for Dodd to scrutinize.
Interestingly, most outsiders to The Cause agree that Dodd is making his practices up as he goes along. Even his son, Val (played expertly by Jesse Plemons, who, both in look and conviction, was clearly born to play Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son) considers Dodd a fraud. The few times Dodd is confronted about his practices, it results in a screaming match in which Dodd cleverly skirts around the questions at hand, causing some of the film’s most thrilling sequences.
Now, in reviews for movies as accomplished as The Master, I typically like to highlight a few standout scenes that may help drive people to the theater. That is futile here. I could mention the first time Dodd “processes” Freddie, and how Phoenix makes the practice of not blinking the most devastating thing I’ve seen in a movie this year. Or how Phoenix all but redefines manic-depressive rage when he and Dodd are thrown into separate jail cells. Or how Anderson perfectly synchs his film to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in a scene where we briefly, nakedly see the world through Freddie’s eyes. But if I start in on that, then this review will never end.
The Master isn’t for everyone. Some will love it, others will detest it. Fair enough. While this is easily the most convoluted film Anderson has made, he is a director that has never quite appealed to mass audiences. I consider Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and particularly There Will Be Blood, four of the best films made in the last 15 years. Fans of those films should appreciate the bold new step(s) Anderson is taking here, while others may be put off by its inventiveness.
A final thought before we close. I’ve seen every major role Joaquin Phoenix has ever played, and never, not once, has he been nearly as good as he is here. His Freddie is so wild and over the top, it would be very easy for Phoenix to play him that way. But here, the actor provides a restraint that is wholly mesmerizing. He’ll be around come Oscar time. As will Hoffman, an actor who, at this point, can do no wrong.
If you’re on the fence about seeing The Master, then see it for them (and Amy Adams, who plays Dodd’s wife better than she’s played any role so far in her career). That trio itself makes this movie, this strange, unique, puzzling movie, worth it. A-