THE MASTER (2012) review
written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
produced by: Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, Daniel Lupi & JoAnne Sellar
directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity and language)
runtime: 137 min.
U.S. release date: September 14, 2012 (limited) & September 21, 2012 (wide)
On August 18th, I attended a sold-out screening at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago for one of the most anticipated films of the year. The line around the block generated a contagious buzz of eager interest. These people were there with a purpose, as was I. Too much hype? Maybe. But no one could deny the result: a transfixed audience. Something quite rare. No cell phones, no talking and hardly any audible chomping could be heard (at least not to my ears). For those reasons alone, watching writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest in a 70mm screening will likely go down as the one of the most memorable theatrical experience of the year for me. It helped that the film offered a viewing experience that was equally as captivating as its atmosphere, making “The Master” easily one of the best films of the year.
Long-rumored to be “that PT Anderson film about scientology”, making “The Master” sound as intriguing as “that David Fincher movie about Facebook”, but look how “The Social Network” turned out. Obviously, I should learn to quell my reservations and trust the auteurs attached to such seemingly uninteresting (at least to me) projects. With its focus on characterization over an identifiable narrative, it’s bound to baffle or frustrate some, while providing others (like myself) with a reminder of how and why film is still a medium to be enthusiastic about.
The film is set in 1950, where we meet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, “I’m Still Here”), a drifting alcoholic who’s just returned from the Navy after WWII. He’s had his fill of infirmaries and authority and upon being discharged he and his fellow veterans are told they “can start a business, filling station, grocery or hardware store”, but Freddie will have none of that. He tries to hold down a job as a photographer at a department store, but winds up having sex with a co-worker and getting in an altercation with a customer. His instability and carnal urges rule him. He is an aimless animal with no direction.
Maybe Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Moneyball”) can help him. An inebriated Freddie stumbles onto a yacht Dodd and his family and friends are on for the wedding of Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), his daughter. There’s something about Freddie that immediately attracts Dodd. Call it animal magnetism. It could be some unidentifiable connection of the soul or maybe something else. Maybe Dodd thinks he can save Freddie from himself, but maybe he sees in Freddie an unobtainable freedom and tenacious self-disregard that he’ll never have. After all, the scholarly Dodd has followers to lead. He describes himself to Freddie as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man, just like you.” That amuses Freddie. As if this well-composed and articulate man could be anything like him.
And yet he stays by Dodd’s side and watches as this Master crafts a quasi-religion that spreads with an unequivocal fervor. While the unstable Freddie becomes Dodd’s shadow and booze supplier (making concoctions out of paint thinner and photo development solution), we find him kind of leery around all loyal surrounding supporters of The Cause (as it’s called). Dodd’s wife Mary Sue (Amy Adams, “The Fighter”) and his cynical son, Val (Jesse Plemmons, “Battleship”) are just as leery of Freddie. She feels the unpredictable lost soul is a hazard to the growing movement that they’re building. There could be truth in that line of thought, because soon enough the two men become a combative duo. Dodd comes to realize that, despite his best efforts, there’s no taming Freddie’s madness, which is fueled by a past plagued by emotional scar tissue and a present consistently drenched in alcohol.
Anderson may have made one of the most unpredictable and an untraditional film of the year, but it is nevertheless consistently intoxicating to watch. What Anderson sets out to do here is just as challenging as what Dodd tries with Freddie. Immediately after watching “The Master” you may just sit there and wonder what it is you just watched. That’s understandable. Not to slight Anderson’s screenplay at all, it’s just that there are times where it seems like he allows the two leads to just go at it and see what they come up with. With actors like Phoenix and Hoffman, that’s quite appropriate.
The acting here is certainly some of the best these two talented men have delivered in recent years, but Phoenix is the standout. This is his film, just as Daniel Day-Lewis owned “There Will Be Blood”. Anderson knows it, as he focuses on his gnarled face and shifty eyes, while Phoenix, permanently hunched-over with his hands on his hips, physically transforms into a wounded yet curious creature. Hoffman’s calm is mesmerizing, his tone inflections lyrical, but when he goes off, he is unleashed. His Dodd is more of an amalgam of Steinbeck, Hemingway and Orsen Welles than he is L. Ron Hubbard. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because this isn’t a biopic on Scientology. No one is going for accuracy here, but these characters are searching; for truth, for a reason for being and maybe for reincarnation.
“The Master” may not be a film with a definitive storyline (don’t get hung up on that), preferring to follow the journey of seekers and believers, and considering everything else it has going for it, that’s just fine. Its scope is grand and literally breathtaking with incredible cinematography by Mihai Malamare Jr., a frequent collaborator with Francis Ford Coppola. Like in “Blood”, Anderson once again teams up with Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, who doesn’t just provide a period appropriate score but also one that conjures unsettling and stirring sounds that get under your skin. It’s a fitting marriage to what we see the characters go through on-screen, especially the observance and subtle dominance of Adam’s character.
The strength of “The Master” can clearly be found in its uncompromising filmmaking and its powerful acting. More gutsy than showy, there’s no real way to describe or categorize “The Master”. It’s best just to process it, to discuss it and to admire how rare that such a film is even made.