The Master shows Anderson’s cinematic panache
The last we saw Paul Thomas Anderson, writer and director of The Master, it was in Daniel Plainview’s bowling alley. It’s been five years since There Will Be Blood, and not much has changed. He still writes stories about surrogate families, incest, and the American West. But The Master shows us a new era of cinema on its own terms.
Whatever you think this film might be, you’re wrong. If you’re expecting a Scientology exposé, you’re wrong. If you’re expecting a climactic payoff, you’re wrong. If you’re expecting perfection, you’re wrong. But if you surrender and follow The Master, it will show you how to see it. It is cinematic panache of the highest order: a dazzling, searing, potent, personal American epic. Only time will tell, but I predict that 20 years from now, everyone will bow to The Master.
The story follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a Navy veteran of World War II, as he struggles to find stability after the war. His greatest talent is creating potent beverages out of paint thinners, Lysol, and photographic chemicals and using them to seduce women. He eventually stows away on a mysterious yacht commanded by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a group of pseudo-scientific mystics called The Cause. While this is based on the career of L. Ron Hubbard, creator of Scientology, that will be the last thing on your mind when the film is over. Quell becomes Dodd’s most obedient apostle and soldier, and the two develop a chillingly intimate bond that is both deeply human and deeply animal.
Human versus animal is the easiest way to summarize this expansive, defiant story. The Cause suggests that humans are not members of the animal kingdom, yet Quell is prone to vicious fits of rage, sexual aggression, and fart jokes. It builds the Freudian conflict of id versus ego into a spectacularly repressed, homoerotic love story. This setting is assisted by composer Jonny Greenwood’s twitchy, celestial score. The moaning, galactic strings of his work for There Will Be Blood have transformed into humming winds that, like the film, have no desire to reach a conclusion. There will be many attempts to explain The Master, but it is best understood as a love song — a story about the basic need to be cared for, to be mastered.
Shot in the archaic format of 70mm film — twice the width of a typical strip, usually reserved for sprawling war epics — The Master is a cinephile’s dream come true. The ridges and angles of Phoenix’s face are set in direct contrast to Hoffman’s plump, round shape. Their countenance fills the screen to every edge. In one scene destined for immortality, Dodd submits Quell to “informal processing,” a strange procedure drawn from Scientology’s therapeutic philosophies.
The camera lingers on Phoenix for minutes at a time as he releases one crushing catharsis after another. His performance is like watching a voodoo priest boil every ache and pain that you’ve ever felt into a cup of tea. He spends most of the movie ready to explode with desire and urge.
Hoffman, too, channels Orson Welles in a gripping, charismatic portrait of a man trying his best to lead. Amy Adams, who plays Dodd’s wife Peggy, hardly ever leaves the screen. While she’s usually tucked away in an out-of-focus corner, she is always hovering over the men, mastering them.
Anderson’s script is far from a religious commentary. Instead, it shows incredible pathos for the ability to have faith, ultimately reasoning that religion is something none of us can escape. We all live with a master, whether it is another human being or our basic weaknesses. If there is a villain in The Master, it’s loneliness.
Anderson understands that our feeble minds can only go so far and discover so much. Having faith in our smallness is a virtue.