Since 1993’s Cigarettes and Coffee, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has charmed us with idiosyncratic films that pit extraordinary complexities in human temperament against fascinating history. Consider his three Oscar-nominated movies: Boogie Nights (naive nightclub dishwasher inhabits 70s golden age of porn), Magnolia (misogynist self-help guru antagonizes 90s vacuous San Fernando Valley) and There Will Be Blood (gold miner-turned-oilman lords over early 1900s frontier).
His latest, The Master, is another cinematic outlier. Here we have the promise of post-War World II America beguiling two extremely flawed men: one a reckless alcoholic drifter, the other a manipulative cult leader. Both are looking for a fix.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), the drunk, needs help. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an L. Ron Hubbard-like leader of a Scientology-like congregation called The Cause, needs someone to repair.
The story opens at end of WWII. Freddie, a sailor onboard a U.S. Navy ship, lies alone, passed out on top of the ship’s engine, staring blindly into what’s most likely a South Pacific sky. Something about him whispers unhinged misfit. He’s a drink mixologist, adept at concocting a grain-alcohol blend of paint-thinner, bread and sugar. Devoid of this brew, he drains (and drinks) either fuel or incendiary liquid from a bomb.
On a beach with other sailors, Freddie gulps alcohol from coconuts and mimics sex with a busty sand sculpture of a woman. Trapped and frustrated in his hyper-sexualized fantasy, he wanders to the ocean’s edge to masturbate. Later, when a shrink presents him with a Rorschach test, he sees only “pussy” and “cock” in the inkblots.
At war’s end, Freddie’s in San Francisco, aimless and showing signs of colossal post-traumatic stress disorder.
Enter Dodd, onboard a yacht at a San Francisco wharf, cajoling his flock of followers. He’s readying the herd, including his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), for a long, spiritual journey to New York, via the Panama Canal. Something about him says charismatic huckster. Freddie, drunk again and wandering the docks, stumbles onto Dodd’s boat and passes out. When the boat’s at sea, Freddie wakes, and Dodd summons him for a meeting.
In Freddie, Dodd sees a “protégé and guinea pig,” someone he can cure and offer to doubters as shining proof of his ideology’s veracity. The elder gentleman wields his smarts and paternal authority to manipulate Freddie’s vulnerabilities. He’s also looking for a comrade who knows how to make a stiff drink, he tells Freddie, which furthers his mixed-message seduction. In Dodd, Freddie sees the only person in his small world who cares and may have the answer to his desperation.
The Master’s cinematic peak – and the scene that will no doubt screen at the Oscars next year when Phoenix, Hoffman and Thomas Anderson are nominees – has Dodd “processing” Freddie. [Thomas Anderson admits borrowing from Scientology for The Master, and similar to L. Ron Hubbard, Dodd believes he can cure sickness through a Q&A session similar to Scientology’s auditing, by recalling and exorcising demons from childhood and past lives.] Here, Phoenix and Hoffman’s artistic sparring and Thomas Anderson’s camerawork showcase a master class in film making.
Phoenix’s physicality throughout The Master recalls Brando and De Niro. Rarely in modern cinema do we get to witness such a stunning method of inhabiting a character.
Hoffman is just as agile. His outbursts of rage, childishness and violence are brilliantly tempered with grace and charm. His Dodd is a prideful shaman, weakened by the weight of his own make-believe world.
Eventually, Freddie and Dodd run an inevitable course toward toxic rivalry, between philosophical contempt and brotherly love. But like all affection built on lies and deception, the pathology eventually breaks the bond. Neither can fix the other.
The movie presents a surreal story based on facts that are at once lucid, a bit confusing and thoroughly engaging. Its power – and perhaps source of both its appeal and ambiguity – relies on questioning what’s on scene: who’s setting up whom, and more pointedly, what dialogue and imagery are real, and what scenes only reflect Freddie and Dodd’s psychotic imaginations?
With The Master, Thomas Anderson – one of America’s few, young (he’s 42), outside-the-lines writer-directors – presents a tour de force in human character study and semi-conscious disquiet.