The Master is nothing less than literature in movie form; a complexly layered (and often baffling) novel of a film, centered around the character of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a WWII Naval veteran trying to find his place in the world of post-war America. Clearly disturbed (both mentally, emotionally and spiritually), Freddie floats from one menial job to another, trying to find peace, but ultimately sabotaging himself time and again through a combination of unrestrained hedonism (imbibing homemade booze, ogling every girl he can) and a violent, volatile anger that erupts at the slightest prompt.
One night, Freddie happens aboard the yacht of one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an eccentric and charismatic man who has fathered “The Cause,” a group built on radical concepts like past lives, sci-fi mythology and Freudian psychotherapy “processing” techniques. Freddie and Lancaster quickly form a bond, as the self-styled “Master” tries to tame wild Freddie and mold him into a shining example of The Cause’s transformative power. Freddie at first thinks he’s found a surrogate family to harbor him - but as he learns more about The Master and his cause, doubt comes creeping back to disrupt Quell’s brief tranquility.
As stated, The Master is cinema deserving of comparison to high literature. The film is never working on just one level (by my count it’s working on at least two levels at any given moment) and is packed to the brim with enough allusion, symbolism, metaphor and thematic implication to keep you peeling back layers and discovering new things many years and viewings later. Like good literature, the film is unconcerned with accommodating the need for easy explanations and obvious meanings – it instead challenges the viewer to raise their bar for inference and analysis. Of course, the ambiguities of the narrative will ultimately frustrate some, who struggle to see any kind of overarching point or development in the film.
It’s hard to claim that there is lack of focus or direction to The Master though, since auteur filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, Boogie Nights) has crafted this film with such a masterful hand (sorry, couldn’t resist). Anderson has already established himself as one of the great Americana filmmakers to emerge out of the last few decades, and The Master is undoubtedly his most gorgeous and sophisticated visual opus yet. Shot in 65mm (and displayed in some theaters in 70mm print), the visual scope of the film is literally twice the size of most movies, and Anderson (working with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., who replaces longtime PTA collaborator Robert Elswit) fills that extra space with picturesque imagery that will be burned into memory - whether you fully comprehend its meaning or not. From a sequence of Freddie running across a plowed field, to a spectacular shot of him passed out atop a Naval battleship while sailors below toss things up at him – this film could be viewed without sound and it would still tell a beautiful and captivating story.
While the narrative through line can be extremely hard to grasp, Anderson’s script is nonetheless crafted with an exactness and authority that assures depth and reward for those willing to dig deep. The movie is sectioned into three acts, each headlined by a recurring image of water (at times churning violently, at times flowing serenely) trailing in the wake of some unseen vessel. Like much else in the film, the metaphor and/or symbolism is debatable, but each act (in my view) ties to Freddie’s quest to ease some unspoken, but ever-present spiritual unrest (as represented by the water). In Lancaster Dodd and his Cause, Freddie finds a family and possible purpose to his life – but that peace quickly begins to unravel as doubt about The Master’s intentions and validity as a spiritual leader come into view.
This is the heart of Anderson’s story: Freddie (as a symbol of the Freudian id? Existentialist confusion or the repressed trauma of a post-war cultural psyche?) is attracted to Lancaster’s charisma, and Lancaster (the Freudian ego? Fanaticism? Nihilsm hiding behind fanatical rhetoric?) is attracted to Freddie’s unbridled, wild freedom (in the way the ego admires the id). Amy Adams, as the quietly fearsome Master’s wife, does what she can to keep Freddie and his heathen behaviors from lowering the idealized stature of would-be “better man” Lancaster (like the super-ego battling the id for direction of the ego). This struggle between the three principle characters is a slow burn, but scene-to-scene the superb performances of the leads is nothing short of riveting. Watching the understated arc of their conflict will be fascinating to some, but utterly boring to others who prefer more dynamic (and pronounced) action and development.
Joaquin Phoenix arguably surpasses the greatness of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Freddie Quell is a fascinating and frightening (if not likable) character to study, and Phoenix loses himself entirely in the role – down to the strained posture, madman facial ticks and a storm of fury always lurking behind soft, deadened eyes. Hoffman is a good match for Phoenix, and scenes between Lancaster and Freddie (in particular, a scene where Lancaster interviews/psychoanalyzes Freddie as part of “processing”) are electric to watch; though, admittedly, the Lancaster/Freddie plotline comes to a somewhat underwhelming close, and is often as muddled as it is interesting. The more unexpected fireworks come from Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd, with her cutesy looks turned on their head to conceal the icy fanaticism of a true believer. Though her presence is often ethereal, the times where Peggy comes front and center to impose her indomitable will are as startling and frightening as they are captivating.
Other famous (or soon to be famous) faces pop up here and there, but The Master is, essentially, a three-person circus. There Will Be Blood composer Johnny Grennwood’s discordant tunes once again transform the most innocent of moments into something seemingly intense, depraved or dangerous – often serving as an audible cue as to what we should be noticing in a particular image, some level of meaning that the music provides a clue to. The score also establishes strong ties between Blood and Master, with the latter almost serving as a companion piece to the former – which only further hints that there are many PTA signature themes (family, the historical roots of modern America’s cultural values and beliefs) waiting to be unearthed.
In the end, The Master may seem like a movie of more questions and suggestions than answers and clarity, but the sheer beauty of its composition and the intensity of its central performances are enough to elevate it above most films. Upon repeated viewings, when the layers start to get peeled back and the true exploration of the film can begin, I believe The Master will sit in a class reserved for the highest forms of cinema. You may not “get” all of it the first time around, but that won’t keep it from taking root somewhere deep in your mind – like the hypnotizing rhythm of a cult mantra.
(P.S. – As always, Anderson closes his film with an indelible final line of dialogue. Just try to unhear it once you’ve heard it.)
The Master is now playing in expanded release. It is Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language.