Skip to Content

Yet another film comes along reasserting that P. T. Anderson is indeed ‘The Master’

The Master

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by Paul Thomas Anderson

U.S.A., 2012

To hard core movie goers and so-called movie buffs, director and screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson requires no introduction. In under 20 years he has mesmerized, entertained, perplexed and surprised people with an impressively diverse filmmography, one that spans, at this point in time, but 6 feature length projects. More than once he has been likened to another all-time great American film auteur, Stanley Kubrick. Whether such a comparison is pure folly or an astute observation on which those with the time and inclination can debate in great depth is not a matter this review shall aboard, but suffice to say that when a director’s name, any director’s name, is favourably mentioned in the same sentence as Kubrick’s, one should understand that someone special is working in the movie industry. Five years removed from his previous project his new offering, simply titled The Master, has finally arrived, much to the delight of many a film connoisseur.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has returned from combat in World War II. Early scenes set on a beautiful beach back during the war as he and some army buddies relax indicate that Freddie is clearly something of a character, someone not exactly like the others. Immediately afterwards, viewers are presented with him as he makes attempts at integrating back into society, assuming he was ever fit for society in the first place, by taking a job as a photographer at a fashionable clothing store. As is soon revealed, Freddie is a drifter, a socially clumsy individual prone to violent outbursts, caring little of what others think of him. His one speciality is the ability to concoct what he presents as alcoholic beverages but are in fact made from atrocious ingredients like paint thinner, among other things. His life takes a turn for something dramatically different the night he takes refuge on a cruising ship currently occupied by a large number of people celebrating a marriage. The self-described captain, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), takes a keen interest in Freddie, hoping to perform some tests on the thick headed fellow. Nothing too dramatic however, merely a series of extremely intimate questions to get at the heart of who Freddie is, a test which Lancaster hopes will enable Freddie to discover the nature of his soul. The charismatic, lively Lancaster, supported by his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) is in fact the founder of a new philosophy which he has baptized ‘The Cause.’ He hopes to propagate the school of thought across the country and Freddie may just be the sort of person with whom he can prove his theories.


‘The Master, therefore, offers little in terms of story… In Anderson’s hands however, the results are at times thrilling, other times fascinating.’

There was a five year hiatus between Anderson’s 2002 Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood, which came out in late 2007. What, exactly, he mulled over during that span, what creative brainstorming did he partake in, all that is anybody’s guess. It seems, so far as can be judged by his two movies since then, that his artistic inclinations have taken a different turn. The Master and There Will Be Blood, obviously both possessing their own unique identities, are nevertheless similar insofar as each deals with very, very specific characters that can be accepted as being larger than life in many ways. Each is an epic character study of extremely quirky individuals. Daniel Plainview, as portrayed by Daniel-Day Lewis, is such a force of nature that despite how far fetched some of his ticks may be, viewers could nothing else besides glue to their eyes to him. The Master, whether in a deliberate attempt or not to up the ante, actually features two such characters, Freddie and Lancaster. In fact, one might even venture to argue that their birth stems from Anderson having opted to split Daniel Plainview into two distinct personalities. Freddie, as played by Joaquin Phoenix, is as much a caricature as he is a believable person. Here is an unfortunately misguided fellow whose most apparent attribute is that he is difficult to get along with. The crooked smile of his (which goes unexplained throughout) is a peculiar choice, as is the mumbled speech pattern. He goes anywhere he pleases and yet does not really fit in anywhere. Conversely, Lancaster is a spectacularly attractive fellow for his charisma. What he is selling people can be put to question for its loops in logic, disregard for actual human science and even moral grounds, but the man knows how to put on his charm.

What Anderson then does with these starkly different characters is pit them against each other, not in an especially antagonistic way, but rather to study what happens when two people such as they collide. The Master, therefore, offers little in terms of story. War veteran and social deviant stumbles upon originator of a bizarre cult who in turn wants to take in said deviant as a pupil. That sums up pretty much everything that happens in the film, which lasts a good 135 minutes. In Anderson’s hands however, the results are at times thrilling, other times fascinating. He is not a director who requires intricate plotting in order to weave a magical film, for his understanding of what can happen, dramatically speaking, with well written characters is nearly second to none. There is not even much of an arc to the picture, and as such The Master can be understood to be but a capsule in time in the lives of Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd. Their proverbial tête-à-tête, the colliding of mutually exclusive personalities, is enough to drive the film. This might not work with another director. Then again, Anderson is not just any other director.

‘…The Master is unequivocally one of the most handsome looking pictures of the year.’

Although it feels difficult to fathom audiences actively siding with either of the two characters on, their trying attempts to forge an unlikely alliance is further proof that Paul Thomas Anderson is a craftsman when it comes to exploring individuals and their struggles that feel different and fresh. Despite that Freddie and Lancaster butt heads now and then, the reality of the situation is that the former makes a conceited effort in applying himself to the latter’s training. His best efforts are ultimately insufficient, but the way in which the story is presented, ‘The Cause’ might be one of the few things in life that Freddie feels he can dedicate himself towards. Lancaster, in an attempt to build on his persona and convince others (and maybe even himself…) of his methods, wants to succeed in manipulating Freddie. Each wants what the other has to offer, despite what reality dictates, and that alone makes The Master a very interesting movie to watch.

There are, of course, many other welcome qualities. Not since Boogie Nights has an Anderson film been this funny. The Master is certainly no riot, yet the attempts at humour, some subtle, other less so, accentuate many of the character quirks and help bring the world of the film to life. The manner in which Lancaster’s second book on ‘The Cause’ is created is one of the best things in the entire film. The film also looks beautiful. Much as already been written about Anderson’s decision to film the project in 70mm. The quality of the image is indeed spectacular, and coupled with exactly what and how Anderson shoots, The Master is unequivocally one of the most handsome looking pictures of the year. The ‘what’ and the ‘how’ are, in an ironic sense, nothing spectacular in that the Anderson shies away from providing his film with any obvious bravura shots. It is far more the distance at which the camera stands from the characters and how it will move around in a setting that strikes home the perfect mood and tone for so many scenes. Spoilers shall be avoided, but the incident between Freddie and a customer at the clothing store is a brilliant piece of camera work for its very cinematic qualities, yet in reality there is nothing overtly extraordinary about it.

Last but not least are the lead performances from Joaquin Pheonix and Philip Seymour Hoffman which the review alluded to earlier. Each is completely from the other, further emphasizing the valley that separates their two roles. Phoenix is the one for whom more time might be required of the audience to settle in to. It is, honestly, a little bit on the weird side of things. That is, ultimately, makes makes Freddie so compelling to follow around however, and credit to Phoenix for preserving a sense of unorthodoxy without being too alienating. Hoffman is excellent in the more traditionally charming of the roles. He is strong, convincing, assured, and driven by a subtle yet eerily discernible sense of desire to overpower others, just as his character needs to be. More solid acting comes from Amy Adams, who plays Lancaster’s wife, and Laura Dern in a very small but fine role.

It should be understood that this review was written after only a single viewing of The Master. As was the case with most of Anderson’s other films, there will undoubtedly be an exponential amount of further revelations and discoveries upon second, third and even more viewings. Fans of the director:s previous work should find more than enough reason to take pleasure in his latest. Is the titular master Joaquin Phoenix or Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of the lingering questions movie goers will think about long after the credits have rolled. Another, more ironic answer, is Paul Thomas Anderson, clearly a master of his craft.

-Edgar Chaput