Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, “The Master”, is the story of two men.
One (Joaquin Phoenix) is an aimless, barely functional alcoholic, who is clearly not in control of his own behavior. His sanity is tentative at best. The other (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is an author and the leader of a small spiritual movement. He’s achieved a level of success and notoriety, but it’s clear that his “teachings” may be baseless, unfounded psycho-babble.
The movie revolves around the period when their lives intersect. Each of the men provide a much-needed counterpoint for the other. One gets a structure and a path to follow. A Master. The other receives a devoted follower, and a challenging student; one who may provide the ultimate test of his methodologies.
It’s a challenging, artistic, engrossing film. Like its titular character, “The Master” is captivating, intriguing, and enigmatic. Extremely thought-provoking. And when the credits roll, it may leave audiences wondering whether it was profound… or just full of hot air.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is clearly not right in the head.
He exhibits erratic behavior and is discharged from the Navy for post traumatic stress. He drinks concoctions of all varieties of hazardous liquids: fuel, paint thinner, developing fluid. He’s obsessed with sex. He is fired from the job he gets after the service as a store photographer for assaulting a customer. He winds up working as a laborer on a farm, but when one of his patented mixes proves poisonous for a fellow laborer, Freddie is forced to flee.
He winds up stowing away on a boat chartered by Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is an author who has founded a spiritual, psychological, intellectual movement known as “The Cause”. In it, people are brought through a process… a series of exercises and a program of study revolving around Dodd’s teachings. In it, students are broken down and forced to confront their own secrets, thoughts and beliefs. Dodd preaches about reincarnation, and takes his followers through past life regressions while under hypnosis. His program is part psychotherapy, part behavioral conditioning, part indoctrination.
Dodd is a charismatic, intelligent figure. He’s surrounded himself with loyalists who support his movement. His wife (Amy Adams) is a steadfast true believer. When faced with dissention, Dodd proves to be a mercurial, temperamental man who is not open to his claims being challenged. Which is half personality, half protective instinct, as its clear that not everyone believes he has all the answers. In fact, even some of the people closest to him think he’s making things up as he goes along… that he’s some sort of spiritual snake oil salesman. His son (Jesse Plemons), for example, candidly feels he’s full of shit.
He not only hits it off with Quell, he also sees the ultimate subject for his program. If ever there was a lost soul, Freddie Quell is it. In fact, many of Dodd’s inner circle advise him to distance himself from Quell, fearing that he may be beyond saving, that there’s no helping him. But Dodd will have none of that. In spite of Quell’s anti-social, alcoholic, unstable behavior, he takes him in and begins to apply his teachings.
“The Master” is a unique, artful film with no easy answers. The two leads, particularly Phoenix, are astonishing. If he doesn’t earn an Academy Award nomination for this performance, something is desperately wrong. His Freddie Quell is unstable, dim, odd, and earnest. He walks the entire movie with a slight stoop, and frequently stands with his hand on his hips in an odd way, given him a chicken-like appearance that’s hard to describe. The character lashes out violently at times, and frequently acts inappropriately. In contrast, Hoffman’s Dodd is the lord of the manor… gregarious and charming when things are going well, and roaring defensively when challenged. He does a remarkable job as well, it’s just that Phoenix’s role is much more transformative.
Anderson plays them off of each other wonderfully. The aimless soul to whom nothing makes sense, and the confident master who feels he has everything figured out. Of course, neither is completely correct. Quell may have moments where his life experience is truer than Dodd’s, and of course, Dodd’s worldview is anything but unassailable. Supporting the dance the two leads perform is Anderson’s incredible directorial style. He has the confidence to let the acting and characters take center stage and then occasionally support the themes presented with wonderfully framed, thought-provoking images. Hoffman racing across the flats on his motorcycle, or Phoenix lying unconscious high above the ship deck.
Of course, the film is begging for interpretation. It’s absolutely ripe for analysis. A full, cohesive theory on the themes presented isn’t something that can be formed on a single viewing (otherwise, obviously, it would be “simplistic”), but my initial take on it is that Anderson has taken the quasi-Scientology teacher/student framework and turned it into a meditation on the human experience and perception of the mind (or spirit)/body separation. Everything Quell does is instinctual. He fights, fornicates and flees. It’s clear he doesn’t examine his own behavior… he barely applies any buffer of thought before acting whatsoever. He’s also given a wealth of scenes revolving around tactile experiences, he’s always touching things, or hitting things. Dodd, on the other hand is almost entirely a cerebral character. He speaks constantly of the spirit, and clearly spends much of his time thinking, speaking, teaching, writing. As I’ve said, with a movie like this, and a filmmaker/screenwriter like Anderson, you wont be able to watch a movie once and completely grasp the themes he’s trying to convey. But on my initial pass, its apparent to me that there’s something there along those lines… some level of rumination on the human being thinking of itself as two entities, a body and a mind (or a spirit). Quell is much too physical, Dodd is much too cerebral, and they’re often shown either wrestling, hugging, squaring off face to face across a table, imprisoned side by side… a number of things that made me think “Two halves of a whole”. Too many, for me at least, to believe it’s coincidence.
It’s a brilliant film. Perhaps too much for me to wrap my head around immediately. It’s certainly a think piece… those interested in movies purely as entertainment and not as examination should be forewarned. But it’s undeniably excellent, challenging, and remarkable. It is certain to be a major player come awards season. I’ll hold my “Extra plus” in reserve until I can arrive at a cohesive theory as to its deeper meaning, but this film is certainly extraordinary, and bound to be discussed as one of the year’s best.