The Master (15)
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams
Running time: 137mins
A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future – until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.
Back in 1999, Tom Cruise delivered with one of the best performances, if not the best performance, of his career in the sprawling ensemble masterpiece Magnolia. Although Cruise is an iconic leading man, he humbled himself with a supporting role, and a pay cut, to play Frank TJ Mackey, an uber-misogynist self-help guru. He reportedly took the role in order to work with director Paul Thomas Anderson, who in the years since the release of that film has become one of the most respected auteurs of his generation. The two reportedly got along famously on the set, and are close friends away from the camera. However, there might be some awkward moments between the two now. Apart from being an iconic leading man, Cruise is something of an unofficial spokesperson for Scientology, a religion quite popular in Hollywood circles. PTA’s latest film, The Master, is an allegorical takedown of that religion. It’s also destined to be one of the finest films of 2012.
The Master” starts out observing the drunken misadventures of a soldier named Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Freddie is a womanizer, a brazen fool and drunk most of the time. Freddie comes back from WWII and lands a job as a department store photographer, a job he quickly loses after drunkenly harassing a customer. After losing another job due to alcohol, he passes out on the yacht of a complete stranger. That stranger turns out to be a gentlemanly writer named Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Lancaster is the founder and leader of a group he refers to as The Cause. Dodd asserts himself as a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, he is just an inquisitive man, an inquisitive man that is the figurehead of a cultish organization. Freddie is swiftly seduced by Dodd’s sizable intellect and charisma and joins The Cause. Dodd, with the help of dutiful wife Peggy (Amy Adams), tests Freddy in a series of intense interrogations, and peels back his defences to reveal the tragedies in Freddie’s life.
It’s easy to see how Freddie is taken in. What he doesn’t know is that Dodd is making all of the beliefs and traditions up as he goes along, even at the admittance of Dodd’s own teenaged son. Dodd has a few devoted followers, but even more vocal skeptics, and he does not handle the skepticism with class. After being challenged at a party, Dodd resorts to vulgarity and shouting, and becomes increasingly defensive, just in the way Freddie does. If anything, Dodd is just as taken with Freddie as Freddie is taken with Dodd. Perhaps Dodd sees a little of himself in Freddie. The rest of the cause wants Freddie out of the movement, but Dodd stubbornly refuses to rid of him.
The relationship between Dodd and Freddie is most certainly the centerpiece of Anderson’s film, and the casting of the two roles was crucial. Thankfully for us in the audience, Anderson is a, um, master of casting, and he casts two of today’s finest actors in the roles. Daniel Day-Lewis’ already legendary turn in PTA’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood, is an intimidating act to follow, but Hoffman and Phoenix are as ever up to the task. Phoenix is forceful on the screen, and is brooding in a way seen rarely since Brando’s days with Elia Kazan. His gestures are severe, his voice is a weapon. But underneath all the volcanic chaos he brings to the role, he gut-wrenchingly displays Freddie’s tortured soul. Hoffman, a regular presence in PTA’s films, revels in Dodd’s eccentricities. He speaks with eloquence. His vocal pattern is reminiscent of the moves of a proven ballet dancer. Hoffman’s Dodd is a man of contradictions, a man who is calculated and meticulous in his manners, yet he acts on the whims of his imagination, and relies on it as a crutch. He is mature in presence, but childish when pressed. If two exemplary performance aren’t enough, Amy Adams is, per the usual, a scene stealing presence as Dodd’s wife, who may have more say in The Cause than most of the followers may know. We’ve never seen this bizarrely sinister side of the actress before, and just as she did in her bad girl role in “The Fighter,” she surprises us and demonstrates a versatility most of her contemporaries envy.
However, the real star of this film is the director himself. With his first films, Anderson was tossed around as a new Altman or Scorsese, thanks to his cinematic verve and his handling of ensembles. But with The Master and his previous film There Will Be Blood, Anderson has tossed himself in the ring with another director in rarified air: Orson Welles. Like that director, and Stanley Kubrick, Anderson composes grand shots that utilize a lot of open space, and the film’s scope is elevated as a result. Using 70mm film (the first time any director has done so since 1996), Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr have an extraordinarily large canvas, yet what they paint is oddly intimate. Anderson dissects his characters with the precision of a fine surgeon, and vigor of a champion boxer. He is as brutal to his characters as Scorsese can be. Saying all this, it sounds as though Anderson is little more than an amalgamation of influences, but he is a subversive, unique and incendiary voice for our generation. In a society overrun by avarice and crippled by antiquated religious standards, PTA challenges his audiences about what has come to define our country.
It’s an epic ambition for sure, but it’s good that we have a director unafraid to be epic. Cinema art houses are filled to the brim with modestly budgeted quirky independents. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but many of them are indistinguishable. But audiences eat it up, and these kinds of audiences are typically skeptical of films that are this ambitious. Lancaster Dodd may have his skeptics; Paul Thomas Anderson should never have again.
Read more of Zack’s work at www.movieroomreviews.com