So a WWII Vet and the leader of a cult walk into a bar…One has no idea where to go and the other appears to have all the answers. A main character finding comfort and solace from a new and enigmatic person in their life has been a theme in other films from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. Hard Eight (Sydney) has John C. Reilly learning from a much classier Phillip Baker Hall. Boogie Nights features Mark Wahlberg being taken in as a new, bright shining star by the patriarch of a porn-associated family, played by Burt Reynolds. Punch-Drunk Love has Adam Sandler’s introverted Barry completely changing his life around, as he decides to pursue Emily Watson’s character, as the two seem to be kindred spirits. Anderson’s latest film, The Master, finds Joaquin Phoenix’s character being absorbed into the world of a charismatic intellectual played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The result is a film that is ambitious, greatly acted, expertly filmed, but also challenging to fully embrace. For a film that is so centered on two key performances, I felt an odd distance to the film as a whole, which made it difficult for me to embrace, despite having so many great scenes throughout. Matching up with other films that could be considered too esoteric for mainstream audiences (Tree of Life), I will be curious to see where The Master ends up standing within Anderson’s body of work, as far as the director’s fan base is concerned.
Lancaster Dodd: Man is not an animal. We are not a part of the animal kingdom. We sit far above that crown, perched as animals, not beasts. I have unlocked and discovered a secret to living in these bodies that we hold.
The Master is set in the 1950s and revolves around a lost soul played by Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a troubled and tortured World War II veteran who has become a drifter, whose main purpose in life appears to be finding women to sleep with, getting into fights due to his perpetual surliness, and behaving generally disingenuous. An added bonus is that Freddie is able to make moonshine from basically anything he can get his hands on, which includes bread and paint thinner. After running away from another difficult situation, Freddie wakes up one morning having stowed away on a ship belonging to a man named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd describes himself as a number of things to Freddie, proving his intellectual worth for himself, but also states that he is a man, just as Freddie is. The two quickly form a bond, with Freddie seemingly being very taken by ‘The Cause,’ which Dodd represents.
Known as “Master”, Dodd is the head of a faith-based organization, which had its inspiration from Dodd’s own published work. The Cause has many followers and a supposed purpose of returning man to his inherent state of perfection. Within this group are the many members of Dodd’s family , including his wife Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams), who is a key figured in Dodd’s own life, as well as one who is quick to understand the kind of person Freddie is and question whether he is a suitable member for The Cause. As the film carries on, we see what lengths the friendship between the two men is willing to go through, as Dodd grows in his state as a confident showman, while Freddie straddles the line of fully committing himself to The Cause and drunkenly marching to the beat of his own drum.
Leading up to the release of The Master, I found it interesting to learn that Anderson had chosen to shoot on 65mm film. This sort of format is generally reserved for a film of epic proportions, but The Master is much more of an intimate film, which happens to utilize a larger canvas in a few instances (Anderson’s own previous film, There Will Be Blood, would have easily been a better candidate). Having gotten to see the film through a 70mm projection, regardless of the beautiful cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr., when it comes to showing off some of the more open areas in the film, the largest thing of note is Joaquin Phoenix’s face, which Anderson takes many opportunities to keep within the frame.
This is important, because it leads me into these performances, which are pretty fantastic all around. Phoenix, in particular, is frighteningly good as Freddie. After coming back from his awkward stage, which turned out to be a hoax that he was committed to for the sake of a film, I’m Still Here, Phoenix has returned to the big screen in an impressive performance. He manages to once again go all out for a role that requires an incredibly amount of work to be as convincing as he is. Freddie is complicated, given the nature of the post-traumatic stress that he is suffering through, which leads him to be something of a vulnerable scoundrel, with an appetite for sex and violence. Everything Phoenix does in this part is effective enough in not at all betraying the persona he has taken on, from his anger to the way he talks, as the camera closes in on the snarl in his upper lip.
True to form, if Phoenix is giving it his all, then Philip Seymour Hoffman is going to do the same; and that he does. I am not going to pretend to know a whole lot about Scientology and how closely this story has elements that mirror that organization, but from what I have seen of L. Ron Hubbard online, Hoffman is seemingly doing something that channels both him and Orson Welles. As Dodd, Hoffman has to play things at a much more mysterious level, given that we must question whether or not he is a charlatan. Dodd is a man who has all of the answers and seems quite proud and confident in his work and with those who follow his lead. Still, regardless of how easily he may be able to explain his stances, Dodd is no stranger to lashing out angrily, with rage continuing to boil underneath the surface for him, when it comes to defending his own points that he is set to argue for, as he is steadfast in his beliefs. These are all qualities that Hoffman can pull off well and he does so here.
I should also take the time to point out Amy Adams’ excellent work as Peggy Dodd, which may be a performance that could go overlooked, given that she is not as majorly featured as Phoenix and Hoffman, let alone as especially carved out as a ‘big’ character. Her role is quite pivotal, as it helps to provide further perspective on Dodd as a character and delve a bit into what factors go into believing in The Cause. The way in which she must upend the type of qualities that make her a generally likable presence suggest all the more that Adams is up to the task of performing at a high level to balance out the other strong lead performances.
Putting aside the lead performances and the technical skill required to make this film look and sound as good as it does, which I will address again later, there is a factor of how involved with the film that I felt did not deliver as well as I would have hoped; especially given my fondness for Paul Thomas Anderson’s past features. While I continue to believe that Anderson is one of the most ambitious and interesting filmmakers currently working, it put me off to not feel like The Master was going to give way to me wanting to revisit it and continue to evaluate my thoughts on it in the future. I say this with There Will Be Blood in mind, which is a long and dark film, but one that still accomplishes a lot and has many things about it that allow me to continue enjoying my time re-watching it.
To put these thoughts into more prospective, it is not that I needed The Master to be a film that I would necessarily be happy to re-watch, but I think it does say something for the film to not have me continually reflecting on the it, let alone leave me with much desire to witness it again, anytime soon. I am all for a film that challenges the viewer, plays around with subtlety, and creates deeply complex characters, but this time around, I did not feel as though I was completely in tune with what I was seeing. The film, not necessarily as a whole, but throughout many instances is quite absorbing, but maybe it has to do with what I felt was a distance between myself and the characters overall. For example, Seeing Freddie at some moments acting with a dedicated loyalty towards Dodd, only to turn that around in other instances may have worked for me better if I felt I was given more to attach to.
Applying less analysis to it, there are a variety of great sequences in this film, with the best moments easily coming from scenes that feature Phoenix and Hoffman having it at it with each other. Some scenes have them aggressively arguing, while others are incredibly intriguing, such as a sequence where Freddie undergoes ‘Processing’ through Dodd’s methods that involve revealing questions. The beginning of the film in general, as we come to get a general understanding of Freddie’s character is also quite interesting. Coming to understand The Cause via Hoffman’s monologues also provides some neat perspective.
I also love so many of the little touches in this film, many of which involve Anderson’s style of showing us how things work, by depicting various activities, like the process of Freddie making moonshine. This is all further helped by the dedication to getting the look of the 50s setting to appear just right. The fact that the film is accompanied by another hauntingly appropriate score by Johnny Greenwood makes much of the film work all the better.
It often becomes tricky when evaluating a film like this, as I am certainly not trying to have the final word on it, just provide my own perspective and hope to find people reacting in some way, regardless of how much they may or may not have appreciated the film. The Master is a lot of things, but it certainly functions as a film that is meant to provide a cerebral experience and be at least appreciated by those who really love film. This does not necessarily apply to a mainstream audience, but at the same time, I am not saying that a mainstream audience would not take satisfaction away from seeing a carefully constructed drama, with wonderful performances, and great technical skill, which has been shot on 65mm film, on display. I can say that I certainly appreciated these things, but I do wish that I felt more involved with the film as a whole, given that it has so many great qualities. As it stands, The Master felt like it could have been tougher to process, but did not leave me seeking out more pamphlets from The Cause.
Val Dodd: He’s making all this up as he goes along. You don’t see that?