Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Madison Beaty, Ambyr Childers, Laura Dern, Rami Malek
Running Time: 137 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
**Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Reveals Plot Details**
"Processing" is a word frequently used throughout Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, and that's fitting considering it also describes what many will be doing after having seen it. In the film, processing (or "auditing" in Scientology speak) is the battery of repetitive and abrasive questioning roaming seaman Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) endures at the hands of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the scientist and author behind a controversial movement called "The Cure." This scene is, if you forgive the pun, a master class in screen acting that holds you enraptured for its duration. It's best to get it out of the way now and state there's absolutely no question the Cure is based on Scientology and the character of Dodd is roughly if not directly, inspired by L. Ron Hubbard. There's no need to dwell on it because it only provides the jumping off point and might be the least important element of a film so challenging, frustrating and baffling you may as well skip the first viewing all together because it'll demand at least three.
Having seen the film only days ago, I'm still trying to make sense of what it all means and slowly coming to terms with the fact that that's what makes it unforgettable. The narrative is all over the place, the two lead characters experience no growth from beginning to end and you'll want to bang your head against a wall when it's over. And yet it's like no American film in recent memory and sticks out like a sore thumb amongst PTA's previous work, none of which has ever been known for its conventionality. But with this, he's really made a raw statement, and while it may take years to figure out what that statement is, he's one of the few filmmakers left who refuse to just give us the answers. With expectations sky high, it was certainly possible to predict the picture's greatness, but few could have guessed it would be this impenetrable.
Our first glimpse of Freddie Quell is under his helmet as World War II comes to an end. A mentally ill alcoholic prone to fits of spontaneous rage, he can't hold down a job as a department store photographer, resulting in a memorable scene early on where he verbally and physically abuses a married customer. It's worth mentioning he's married only because that fact seems to be what drives Freddie over the edge. His quest for women and a family is a reoccurring theme throughout the film and his burning need for human companionship provides the purpose for his existence and, as the film argues, ours.
After a drunken night, Freddie ends up as a stowaway on the ship of the enigmatic Lancaster Dodd, whose quasi-religious, philosophical movement explores past lives, time travel, processing and forms of hypnosis to return the human form to its perfect essence, thus eradicating war and disease. In this young man, Dodd immediately sees an animal that needs to not only be contained, but cured and senses he could be the perfect subject for his practices, which are coming under increased scrutiny. A friendship and father-son dynamic that develops is at times touching, volatile and pathetic in how both seem to fulfill a need in each other. Freddie, the animal, needs the stability and focus the Cure's teachings provide so he can empty his emotional baggage. Dodd secretly and desperately wants the freedom Freddie has but his movement is built entirely around suppressing those animalistic urges. His pregnant wife Peggy (Amy Adams) feels Freddie is past help and his unpredictability is a detriment to their cause. She may be right, but in Dodd's mind, it's as much his mission to prove himself right as to rescue a lost soul.
As Freddie, Joaquin Phoenix gives a performance unlike any other we've seen, playing an unconventional, often unlikable protagonist who keeps you on edge every moment he's on the screen with his volatility. Besides having literally no idea what he'll do from one scene to the next or when he'll just completely lose it, his exaggerated movements and mannerisms more closely resemble an old man than a young seaman. Phoenix is pushing 40 yet is still somehow completely believable as being in his twenties, middle-aged or an old man. Here it seems he gets to play all three as the character's actual age remains one of the film's many mysteries.
Slouched over like a hunchback with his pants nearly pulled up to his chest, words frequently come out of his mouth as a drunken warble with his emotional instability physically manifesting itself to the point that he looks physically ill. It's not just a brilliant performance, but a dangerous one because he keeps you on edge and anxious the whole time you're watching, constantly in your face and taking on the persona of a wild animal. During one of Freddie's many meltdowns Dodd reminds him he's the only one who likes him, and he's right. Of all the kooky theories Dodd dispenses throughout, the one that strangely seems the most plausible is that these two men were destined to somehow find one other across time and space.
Hoffman infuses Dodd with a blustery charisma and Wellesian presence that belies a deeply insecure fraud you still can't help but admire for his dedication, if nothing else. His best scenes are when his practices are questioned, causing the usually calm, confident Master to briefly lose it before realizing that doing so is a betrayal of the Cure's methods, which are frequently attacked. If behind every great man is a woman then Dodd's is his wife Peggy, played by Amy Adams in the scariest performance of her career. "Terrifying" or "emotionless" aren't adjectives usually associated with her work but she has a scene (and if you've seen it you know EXACTLY which one) that's so shocking it instantly puts everything about their marriage and this movement in full perspective. It's clear who the real puppet master is, as we find out Freddie isn't the only man in the film controlled by the opposite sex. A perfectly cast Jesse Plemons (who really resembles a younger Hoffman) has only a few scenes as Dodd's son Val but they're revelatory, with one resulting in perhaps the film's most memorable line. Even he thinks his father's a fraud. Laura Dern has an extended cameo as a Cure follower who eventually starts asking to many questions for her own good, and Dodd's.
Viewers are likely to take an issue with the fact that the narrative follows an unusual trajectory that seems to spit in the face of what we'd consider a conventional three-act structure. There's this expectation that the film is building toward some kind of climactic showdown between the Dodd and Freddie, similar to the final violent bowling alley scene between Daniel Plainview and preacher Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood. But this isn't that kind of a relationship, and the more we want to see Freddie break away and become Dodd's nemesis, the further PTA seems to tug in the opposite direction. The battle taking place is within themselves and it each needs the other to help fight it. The movie builds and builds before fading away into the distance, leaving the viewer to consider the possibility that some people just might be incapable of change, hardwired to sabotage their own happiness.
At one point Dodd tells Freddie that if he figures out a way to live without a master to let the rest of the world know because it would truly be a first. Dodd's master is his wife, while Freddie also has a girl, Doris (Madison Beaty) he thinks is waiting for him back home. And by the time he actually realizes what he wants, it's gone. The film starts almost exactly where it begins, with Freddie adrift. All he wanted was a human connection, and his brief bond with Dodd provided him with it, or maybe just the illusion and comfort of one. Like most things in his life, he couldn't find the discipline to dedicate himself to it, though a closing scene (extremely reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange) suggests the Cure's practices had some kind of lasting impact, even as we're unsure of exactly what. The jury's out on whether there's any hope for this character, or whether anyone will ever be able to fully dissect what occurs in the last third of the picture. In a way, the movie never truly ends.
About as divisive and polarizing as it is, a movie theater just might be the best and also worst place to see The Master. Technically speaking, it demands to be seen on the big screen to absorb the visual grandeur and hear Jonny Greenwood's unmistakably sad and sublime score that's more than a few miles removed from his previous PTA collaboration on There Will Be Blood. Yet, it so complex and intellectually involving it's impossible to imagine seeing it with an audience and being as absorbed as you would be watching it alone without any external distractions.
Too often period pieces are prone to feeling to cold and distant with such a technical emphasis on capturing a certain era (in this case the post-war 50's) that the story's pathos is lost. What PTA does better than anyone, and takes to a whole new level here, is check both those boxes in creating an epic that's technically brilliant without sacrificing emotional depth. It doesn't feel like a museum piece to be admired and respected from arms length like so many others released this time of year, but instead a picture to dive into repeatedly, making new discoveries on each viewing.
With this effort PTA cements his status as the best American filmmaker working today, surpassing his closest competitor David Fincher, whose recent Dragon Tattoo amounted to little more than pulpy nonsense. Even those who despise this picture (and boy will there be) couldn't reasonably consider it a disappointment just on the basis of the discussion and analysis it inspires. It also features two of our greatest actors in Phoenix and Hoffman going head-to-head in what will no doubt years from now be looked at as the pinnacle of their work. It's difficult enough to find new releases that give us something we've never seen before but this does that while still having enough respect for its audience to let us unravel what that "something" is. Challenging beyond belief, what throws you off most about The Master is how it doesn't actually begin until after the final credits roll.