Five years after “There Will Be Blood”, one of the best films I’ve ever seen, Paul Thomas Anderson is back in movie theatres with “The Master”. And his arrival comes not a moment to soon. Bold and stirring, “The Master” is an intense look at the relationship between two men – the leader of a cult and a “lost soul” who stumbles into the center of the proceedings. It’s anchored by sensational performances from its three main actors, a stirring score and a camera that captures the intensity at every moment. It’s bizarre and muddy at points, but “The Master” overcomes its issues in the long run.
“The Master” mainly focuses not on the titular character, but on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic Navy veteran returning home after World War II. To say Freddie is struggling to adapt to post-war life would be an understatement – he’s an uneducated, wandering, drunken mess. By chance, he ends up on a boat owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a movement known as The Cause. Dodd, who admires both Freddie’s energy and his alcoholic creations, takes him in as a foster son of sorts, introducing him to the ways of The Cause while having him travel with Dodd’s family up and down the East Coast. This includes Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams), who plays the good wife in public while pulling strings behind the scenes.
I was fascinated by how “The Master” explores The Cause, a cult movement that relies on “processing” to draw out past traumas. It’s been oft-compared to Scientology in the months before release, and without knowing more than the ultimate basics of that “religion”, the comparison seems warranted. But is Anderson slamming religions and cults here? I’m not so sure the answer is yes. Freddie does have his life improved in many ways while focusing on the teachings of The Cause, as wonky as Dodd’s teachings may seem at times. This isn’t a cut-and-dry direct shot at The Cause, and it really shouldn’t have Scientologists (or any other group) up in arms.
Ultimately, “The Master” is about the relationship between two vastly different men. Freddie is an alcoholic, a womanizer, a man without a home. His behavior doesn’t change dramatically throughout the course of the film, though there are important breakthroughs. It almost doesn’t make sense that Dodd takes such a liking to him – but Dodd truly believes that The Cause can cure Freddie. He also senses something in him – an energy, an activity that’s missing in his son and son-in-law.
Watching these two characters interact should be enough of a fascinating experience. But in the hands of two of the best actors we have working today, the material is taken to another level. Phoenix is as good as can possibly be, with not a second of wasted movement throughout the film’s 137-minute run time. Every word, every line, every motion mesmerizes. It’s a raw and animalistic performance, with a sneer that seems stapled onto Phoenix’s upper right lip. This is an artist at the absolute peak of his game, eating up every minute of his time on screen. Hoffman, meanwhile, has the more restrained part, though he still contains moments of explosive brilliance. He makes you really, truly believe that Lancaster could want Freddie to succeed and be ultimately invested in his life. It’s a concept that may be a little jarring on paper, but it shines on screen.
Adams deserves a mention here as well. Her role isn’t as meaty as either of the two leads, but she is outstanding in a role played directly against type. Without revealing anything, there are some scenes that…well, let’s just say they wouldn’t fit in “Enchanted” and leave it there. But Adams is a likely third Oscar nominee from the acting branch here.
Have I mentioned “The Master” is funny? Man, is it funny. Phoenix stated that he thought the film was a comedy after watching a rough cut of it, and he’s probably on to something. The film gains humor in discomfort, and boy, is there plenty of discomfort. Phoenix finds humor in even the most rote exchanges, and I found myself laughing even when I didn’t think I should be laughing.
I’ve gone this far without mentioning two of the MVPs of “The Master”, Jonny Greenwood and Mihai Malaimare, Jr. The former, a Radiohead guitarist, has composed a haunting score on the heels of his “There Will Be Blood” soundtrack. The latter, a relatively new cinematographer, makes sure every shot is detailed and tells a story. Much of “The Master” is shot in character close-ups, and the intensity will draw you to the screen at every moment.
“The Master” isn’t entirely perfect. Its run time could probably be chopped down by a bit, and it’s weirdly unsettling at times. But it’s darn close. This won’t be a movie for everyone, but I found it to be a striking and intense experience that ranks among the best I’m likely to see this year.