For film fanatics, it’s always exciting to hear about a great modern auteur making his or her next feature pic. The day of the film’s release isn’t simply a date to mark on calendars; rather, it’s treated, almost heralded, as a religious experience that can’t be missed. Such is the case for director Paul Thomas Anderson, lauded by many for his award-winning films “Boogie Nights” and “There Will Be Blood,” as he marks the occasion with “The Master,” a superbly crafted effort that, despite feeling rather cold at times, yields rich material that entices the viewer to revisit it multiple times.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally unhinged WWII veteran who drifts mindlessly, his appetite being only alcohol and sex. After a drunken night, he awakes to find himself on a ship owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic founder of a faith-based organization known as The Cause. Dodd develops a fascination for Quell, and subsequently welcomes him into his group, where Quell eventually becomes his right-hand man. He believes he can cure Quell of his mischief, and hopes to urge him back to existence.
“The Master” is quite fascinating in that it doesn’t really have much of a narrative (which triggers a nearly excruciating slow pace at times), yet it isn’t quite a character study either. Rather, it relies on character interactions to move forward, and it’s no surprise that the scenes between just Dodd and Quell provide the film’s most compelling and scintillating moments, one of which involves Dodd bombarding Quell with a series of questions over and over again to analyze the latter’s psychology.
The film has met some controversy over the analogies between The Cause and Scientology. The practices by members of The Cause in the film do mirror those done by Scientologists, and Anderson himself confirmed that Dodd was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology.
However, “The Master” is certainly not a film about either Scientology or Hubbard. In fact (and surprisingly), it doesn’t go very much in depth into The Cause or Dodd, as little is told about Dodd’s life before the events in the film. Instead, Anderson chooses to focus the film on Quell and his relationships with others, almost content to not provide answers and leave the viewer to wonder instead, prompting what feels like an indifferent viewing experience.
What results is a film that is essentially about post-war America: about how Americans were left looking for answers, and how some believe they found it in organizations like The Cause. To witness all this through the eyes of Quell, himself a mere hollow shell of a man, is a journey that Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung would have a field day with.
With such complex characters on board, “The Master” keeps itself buoyed with profound actors, each dealing with dichotomies in human nature. Phoenix delivers an animalistic performance, skillfully contorting and twisting his face to show just how anxious Quell is behind his insane grins. Hoffman is equally adept at balancing the two sides to Dodd: the jovial uncle whom everyone loves, and the sensitive leader who bristles with rage when on the defensive. As Dodd’s wife Peggy, Amy Adams discreetly goes about being the doting and faithful wife, yet exercises unbridled power behind closed doors, assuming the role of a disturbing Lady Macbeth.
The film boasts a strong foundation under its story and performances. Filmed in 65mm film, which has a higher resolution than the standard 35mm motion picture film format, Anderson’s latest feature looks absolutely spectacular as the world around the characters is enhanced, the time period eerily replicated by lifelike production and costume design. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead provides an experimental and moody film score that amplifies the post-WWII anxiety being felt.
While “The Master” initially appears to offer a cold and frustrating experience for the viewer, its true value is found in the characters and the way they interact in a world that exposed each person as, as Dodd describes himself and Quell, “a man … a hopelessly inquisitive man.” There’s so much content on so many levels to explore in the film that it coaxes the viewer to return again and again, each time a hopelessly inquisitive man.