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Paul Thomas Anderson continues to prove his cinematic superiority with ‘The Master’

The Master

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by Paul Thomas Anderson

USA, 2012

“Man is not an animal,” Lancaster Dodd calmly and firmly intones into the ear of the perpetually addled, horny, and wayward Freddie Quell early in The Master. This is, in some ways, the key phrase at the center of Paul Thomas Anderson’s excellent new drama, a 1950s-set character study about the vast ocean of difference between Dodd, who purports to be a centered, rational leader of religious thought, and Quell, who stumbles into Dodd’s path and exists almost entirely to disprove the possibility that Dodd’s stated beliefs can change anyone. Anderson’s working at the peak of his talents, as expected. It’s Joaquin Phoenix, though, who is most revelatory in the film. After an extended absence from non-prank-related movies, he roars back onto the screen in a career-best performance, aided by excellent supporting work from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams.

Controversy has swelled around The Master since its inception, as murmurs that the film was a slashing expose about the ever-scandalous tabloid fodder/religion Scientology grew louder and louder. Certainly, you can draw parallels from Scientology to the supposedly science-based set of ideas called the Cause that’s depicted in The Master. However, to focus so obsessively on the Cause, which Anderson uses as set dressing more than anything else, would be to miss out on the film’s overall power. Though Dodd (Hoffman) functions somewhat as an L. Ron Hubbard-esque individual who acts as if he has supreme knowledge, the story Anderson wrote and directed isn’t meant as a takedown of Scientology. Instead, The Master zeros in on a wild, wounded dog of a man, a caged animal in repose until someone’s unwise enough to rattle him.

Phoenix plays Freddie, a World War II vet who looks forever haunted and desperate to pretend otherwise. Freddie, even during the war, is known for his questionably created yet somehow popular moonshine; if there’s something liquid in front of him while he’s mixing a brew, it’s ripe for the taking. (Even if it’s paint thinner.) Post-war, Freddie drifts from job to job, climaxing when he runs away from migrant work and a moonshine mix gone horribly wrong. He soon finds himself on a yacht setting sail for New York City, and meets Dodd, a charismatic and “hopelessly inquisitive” man fascinated by this creature who seems beyond rational help yet could be the perfect test subject for his Cause. Freddie quickly becomes a key part of the Dodd family, next to Lancaster’s shrewd and blunt wife (Amy Adams), his cynical son (Jesse Plemons), and his flirtatious daughter (Ambyr Childers). As he grows closer to them, Freddie’s inveterate temper expands and threatens to consume all Lancaster has worked for.

The Master is looser, more formless, and less pinned down to a typical plot structure than anything else Anderson has made in his illustrious career. We’re at the mercy of Freddie, who cuts a strangely magnetic figure for someone whose personality is defined by his roiling fury at the world and himself. Phoenix’s exceptional performance sets aside theatrical pretensions; the way he subtly contorts his face, hunches his body, and places his hands on his hips all feel natural and suitably confrontational. Freddie is a powder keg whose fuse has already been lit, his anger a shocking and creepily wondrous thing to behold. His time with Lancaster only fuels his rage, forcing him to reminisce on lost love and family. If The Master is truly about anything, it’s about the eternal struggle humans have in controlling anger, in not giving into animalistic temptations. Though Lancaster is an upstanding citizen compared to the brutish Freddie, rarely raising his voice, he does lose his temper. When that happens, it’s far more disturbing. You expect Freddie to lose his mind at an imagined slight. Lancaster’s supposed moral fiber belies, however, a repressed level of wrath, making him more unpredictable and, thus, scarier.

As with any Paul Thomas Anderson film, The Master is filled with standout sequences; most electrifying is the lengthy setpiece where Lancaster first “processes” Freddie, asking him a series of seemingly unrelated questions, ranging from being asked to say his name aloud repeatedly to discussing muscle spasms to—almost immediately after—talking about whether he committed incest. Both Phoenix and Hoffman do stellar work in the darkly lit scene, the former almost childlike in his attempts to respond in a way that will impress the latter, to endear himself to Lancaster. Like Anderson’s other films, The Master veers in unexpected directions, never content to remain predictable. We’re following a life slowly spiraling the drain, spinning from hope to despair in one cycle.

One notable difference in The Master is that Anderson isn’t working with his longtime collaborator, Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit. In his place is Mihai Malaimare, Jr., who’s equally capable behind the camera. The Master is a much more patient film than Anderson’s other works, rarely moving quickly, with a plethora of static, long shots. As such, Malaimare’s cinematography is simply striking, especially when lingering on faces, whether it’s Phoenix, Hoffman, Adams, or the rest of the supporting cast. And while Phoenix is absolutely the best performer in the bunch, there’s not a slouch among them. Hoffman—another Anderson cohort—is charming and, at times, surprisingly goofy as Dodd, who couches his considerable yet possibly suspect intelligence and paternal nature in charming and unexpected ways. Dodd and the Cause aren’t what they seem, but Hoffman makes the character and Cause feel legitimate. Adams delivers a measured, even, and direct performance as Mary Sue Dodd, who embodies the Lady Macbeth role, the true power behind the throne. This trio of actors aren’t just superlative, they’re living proof of the wonders of versatility. You won’t find similar performances from these three in the rest of their respective filmographies.

The Master may not be the film some people expect or want; its effect is such that it proves why we should kick our expectations to the curb, though. The film is a haunting elegy about a core struggle of humanity. Freddie Quell may be an extreme example of behavioral problems; nevertheless, as Dodd wonders to his family, if they cannot help him, they have failed him as fellow humans. What is most tragic about Freddie, and what Phoenix achieves so well, is that there is a worse option: he may not want to be saved. The journey we take with these men is, thanks to the surehanded direction, compelling to watch.

At this point, the question is not if Paul Thomas Anderson will produce a best-of-the-year candidate with each new film he makes, it’s how he’ll pull it off. With this new film, Anderson continues his streak of being one of the most important and exciting living filmmakers. His three films since 2000—Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and now The Master—prove that he’s stepped away from the shadows of influential directors like Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, and are among the best American films of the new century.

— Josh Spiegel