Definitely not for the masses.
The H-Bomb: Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a sailor who is discharged from the Navy at the end of World War II for apparent psychological reasons. As we soon see for ourselves, the war has indeed left Freddie a little damaged in the head, as evidenced by his fixation with all things sex-related, including an incident on a beach in which he humps a woman made out of sand, as well as his numerous, violent outbursts. The fact that Freddie is a raging alcoholic who makes his own moonshine, often out of such ingredients as torpedo fuel and paint thinner, does very little to help his situation.
Freddie finds work in the civilian world, first as a department store photographer, then later as a farm hand, but due to his penchant for boozing and starting fights, neither gig lasts. After being forced to leave his last job rather abruptly, he stows away on a boat where a big shindig of some kind is being thrown.
The boat has been chartered by one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), for his daughter’s wedding. Dodd is a man of many talents; he’s a writer, a nuclear physicist, a doctor, a philosopher, and above all else, he is the founder and leader of a new movement known as “The Cause.” What is The Cause? A convoluted, pseudo-religion cult thing that encompasses such beliefs and practices as hypnosis, reincarnation, alternative medicines/therapy, that is absolutely in no way meant to resemble Scientology (snicker). Dodd believes his methods can be used to treat everything from mental illness to leukemia, and being that he is quite the charismatic chap, he has already garnered an impressive following.
As they bond over a few glasses of Freddie’s custom made “potion,” Dodd realizes that Freddie is something of a lost soul in need of his guidance and welcomes him into his flock. At first, all is well. Freddie finally feels a sense of belonging with his new “family,” and a sense of deep loyalty to Dodd. But, before long, trouble surfaces, as Freddie becomes violently unhinged whenever somebody challenges his “Master‘s” credulity. He even gets rough with Dodd’s son after the boy confides in Freddie that his father is “just making all this up as he goes along.”
Soon after, other members of “The Cause” admit that they feel uncomfortable around Freddie (given this lovely bunch of coconuts, that’s saying something), and Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), declares Freddie untreatable and strongly urges her husband to cut him loose. But Dodd has made it a special project of his to help Freddie, with a battery of rather unorthodox tests he’s set up for him. From there what ensues is a battle between Freddie’s uncontrollable rage and possible madness and Dodd’s own need to prove his quackery legitimate.
Much like last year’s The Tree of Life, The Master, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is destined to be a true audience divider. The critics are already singing its praises, while a large portion of the general movie going public will, no doubt, detest it. There were at least four or five walk outs at my screening, and when it finally ended, I myself was not entirely sure how I felt about it. I was able to appreciate the film’s technical merits, as it is strikingly well directed with stark cinematography and a flawless eye for late 40’s/early 50’s period detail. Anderson certainly is a ‘master’ of his craft as far as that goes. The premise is certainly an intriguing one, and the film features two Oscar caliber performances. But despite all that, I found myself walking out of the theater with this single thought on my mind, “I think I liked it . . . I think.”
This ambiguous reaction is exactly the same as the one I had after seeing Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood, the tone and mood of which are very similar to The Master. I knew immediately that Daniel Day-Lewis was phenomenal, but I wasn’t sure what I thought of the film as a whole. Then I watched There Will Be Blood a second time, was able to absorb more of it, and was finally able to say with confidence it was a good film. After seeing it a third time, I got even more out of it, and realized that not only was it a good film, it was a Goddamn masterpiece. I have the feeling, that with subsequent viewings, The Master will, for me, improve in similar fashion. Perhaps some day I will regard The Master as another masterpiece for Anderson . . . but not today.
What many will be put off by, aside from the movie’s deliberately slow pace and unrelentingly downbeat tone, is the overall aloofness of Freddie Quell. Phoenix is tremendous in the role (more on that in a moment), but Anderson keeps us at a distance from him, and we never really come to understand why he is the way he is. I can get the violent temper coming from the war, but the sexual obsession? The urge he has to stick it into nearly every woman he meets? Where does that come from? Aside from never fully grasping him, there’s also that he’s really not at all sympathetic. Freddie’s kind of like Adam Sandler’s character from Punch-Drunk Love, except he’s not played for laughs this time, and as I watch him, I’m left thinking, “I don’t fucking like this guy.” I don’t relate to him, I don’t empathize with him, and watching him is not exactly my idea of a fun time.
But, my own personal feelings about Freddie aside, I must acknowledge how vividly he’s embodied by Joaquin Phoenix. How good is Phoenix in this role? Let me put it like this, if he doesn’t win the Academy Award for this, he will never win it! Phoenix truly inhabits this sick, scary, yet rather sad character entirely. Not just in his line deliveries, but in his posture, in how he moves, in his odd facial ticks (at times it seems like half his face is paralyzed). His portrayal of Freddie Quell is every bit as powerful as Day-Lewis’ of Daniel Plainview, and Phoenix deserves every bit of recognition that comes his way because of it.
That said, Phoenix is not the only one who should be clearing room on his shelf for a gold statue, as Hoffman’s performance as the suave, arrogant, and possibly deluded Dodd is up there amongst the actor’s finest work. His “Master” comes off as both slimy and sincere, a con man who over time has come to believe his own lie, and who will lose his cool very quickly whenever his “Cause” is challenged. He and Phoenix play off each other splendidly, and the co-dependency that they develop over the course of the film is fascinating. Their confrontation in a shared jail cell, in which a toilet is brutally murdered, is one of the most arresting and well acted scenes I’ve seen in any movie this year. I say Phoenix and Hoffman should both be put up for Best Actor, and they both should win. I know that’s not possible, I’m just saying, in a just world, that’s what would happen.
The two terrific lead performances aside, I still, unfortunately, find it hard to recommend The Master to anyone but the most dedicated cinephiles. Over the course of P.T. Anderson’s career, his films have become more and more challenging, and less and less accessible. I would say that The Master is easily the most challenging and least accessible of all his movies. It’s every bit as dark and grim as There Will Be Blood, but it’s less operatic and offers a lead character who’s even more difficult to identify with than the greed driven oilman, Daniel Plainview. Like I said earlier, this is a film that requires more than one viewing to truly take everything in, and I am sure the film will improve when(ever) I see it again. As it stands right now, The Master is a motion picture that I admired more than I actually enjoyed.