Paul Thomas Anderson is one of those directors that I can’t help but respect, even if I don’t always respond to his films in the way that I would expect to. I’ve seen all of his theatrical offerings and I love the way he pieces his films together. They are truly ‘director heavy’ films that thrive on his knack for building tension with such visual and visceral flare. Even when his films don’t complete themselves in the way I want them to, Anderson colors so many of his frames with such rich backstory and character development that you can’t help but be drawn to the film as a whole. He’s had two masterpieces as far as I’m concerned; ‘There Will be Blood’ and ‘Boogie Nights’, and after that his films run from messy (Punch Drunk Love) to cluttered (Magnolia) to sincere (Hard Eight) and I’d say that ‘The Master’ is certainly sincere, if not a tad messy. Anderson has so many ideas associated with his films that it takes a really steady hard to reign them all in, and he’s managed that before but something about ‘The Master’ feels incomplete, which is sad considering how much brilliance is here.
There was a ton of hoopla made over this film before it was even released thanks to the obvious ties to Scientology and the fact that that particular ‘religion’ (if that is what you call it) is all over the media thanks to Tom Cruise, and so there was an almost immediate interest in the film regardless of what camp you are in. This is where my main issues with the film come in, because I don’t feel as though the presence of ‘The Cause’ (the film’s version of Scientology) was developed enough. As far as the character development is concerned, this film is marvelous. The development of Freddie and Lancaster and even Dodd’s wife are all marvelously entangled into the fabric of every frame and for that I was in awe, but ‘The Cause’ itself and the meaning it symbolizes never felt wholly constructed.
It felt secondary.
The film centers on a relationship that builds between two men who are seemingly very different and yet ultimately very much the same, just at two polar ends of their life journeys. Freddie Quell is a lost soul, damaged from his time serving in World War II and constantly searching for a place where he feels stable. Lancaster Dodd has found that place. Granted, he had to create it himself, but it is a place where he feels important and meaningful and necessary. As ‘the master’, Dodd heads a movement known as ‘The Cause’ that practices some questionable tactics in the preservation of faith and life and is met with skepticism and downright loathing by some around him. As his loyal wife notes, he’s constantly under attack. Both of these men are equally lost in their struggles to find worth and yet one of them has self-created a world in which he understands the meaning of life. Through these men, the desperation to believe in something, anything, which can ground your life, is seen in spades.
I chuck a lot of this up to the brilliant dual performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I don’t think either man has ever been better. These two performances really anchor this film and play such beautiful compliment to one another. I’m just in awe of what these men were able to achieve.
Philip Seymour Hoffman reigns in his usual antics to create a more internalized and complex portrait of a man trying desperately to compose himself. I love how you can see in his more dramatic moments that he truly is the more polished version of Freddie Quell. He was probably once a powder keg, exploding at the lightest brush with resistance, but over time he has built for himself this façade of a life where he is in control and people need him. His smile, his versing, his steely determination; all fabrications to allude to a life understood when Dodd is obviously just as lost as all his ‘sheep’.
He truly is making it all up as he goes along.
Phoenix is a total revelation as Quell. I’m completely speechless about this performance and yet I really feel as though I need to muster words to express how magnificent he is here. I instantly call to mind Heath Ledger’s performance in ‘Brokeback Mountain’, and then obviously that very Oscar race. This isn’t to say that the two performances are similar in scope but that they are both complete characters created from the ground up but these actors. Ledger was uncanny as Ennis, creating this man who was so wounded by a backstory never divulged that ‘every word was a struggle’ and it showed. Phoenix, like Ledger, colors Quell with so much backstory even if it is never uncovered completely. Each mannered tick and obvious emotional imbalance is beautifully tuned into the core of this man. The way he talks, the way he forms his words and fights with his own thoughts is miraculously detailed by Phoenix. His processing scene alone is one of the most engrossing and wrenching movie moments of this year and any other.
It’s sad that in both of these cases, they lost the Oscar to mimicry.
At the end of the day, ‘The Master’ is a riveting experience. The performances, the score (which is essential to the tone of the film), the cinematography and beautifully etched physicality of the film are all so powerful to witness. Sadly, the script seems somewhat devoid of a complete thought. It builds up to an ending that falls slightly short of revolutionary, which is sad considering that explosively rich ending tagged onto ‘There Will be Blood’. That isn’t to say that Hoffman’s song to Quell isn’t stirring (could honestly be Hoffman’s best scene) but the fact that ‘The Cause’ took such a backseat to all else in the film made the film’s conclusion feel underwhelming.
That being said, I’d highly recommend one watch this a few more times (myself included) before passing final judgment.