Almost every aspect of this beguiling new film from Paul Thomas Anderson seems to be designed to create discomfort for the viewer - the truly off-kilter and abrasive performance from Joaquin Phoenix, the oily slickness of Philip Seymour Hoffman's L. Ron Hubbard-esque character, and the idiosyncratic Jonny Greenwood score, which seems to be written more as a counterpoint to the drama on screen than as a complement. While PTA's previous 'There Will Be Blood' pushed these same buttons, 'The Master' looks to be a film to admire rather than embrace with love.
The Master (2012) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams
By Alan Bacchus
We could easily split PTA's evolving career into two specific phases. The first is the youthful wunderkind era of heightened melodrama punctuated by show-off visuals aping the hyperactive coke movies of Martin Scorsese, a trilogy of sorts which ended with the monumentally engrossing saga Magnolia. The second period shows a distinct shift, a new modus operandi, significantly less conventional, more understated, oblique, purposefully awkward, befuddling and obtuse - seemingly a conscious antidote to the criticisms of his first three pictures.
The Master finds PTA at his most oblique. The lineage of the story is no secret. It's a not-so-subtle look at L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the controversial Scientology. This is a bold choice of subject which brings to mind Orson Welles' hubris making a film about William Randolph Hearst.
As such, coming from Anderson we kind of expect something as ambitious and grandiose as Welles would have done. The film is certainly not a comprehensive biopic nor an overly ambitious film, but a strange character study of two eccentric personalities and their unlikely symbiotic relationship.
We don't meet the Hubbard character until approximately 20 minutes into the film. Instead Anderson introduces us to Freddy Quell (Phoenix), an oddball to the extreme, cut from the same cloth as Adam Sandler's character in Punch Drunk Love. Freddy is a drunk, someone who concocts his own moonshine from various poisonous solvents we were not meant to drink. Phoenix's extra coarse face shows him as a man of rock-hard constitution, a sociopath ethic Freudian nightmare to the extreme.
Early scenes brilliantly show him wandering through situations and lives trying to fit in but failing spectacularly. Freddy's brief stint as a department store portrait photographer is perhaps the film's most inspired scene. The Master is top-heavy with these scenes, including a raucous scene with a moonshiner on a share-cropping farm.
Eventually Freddy meets the Hubbard character, known as Lancaster Dodd, a perfectly superfluous name thought out as carefully as Anderson's porn star names in Boogie Nights. Dodd seems to be the only one able to corral Freddy's wild behaviour. Their conversation on his boat before his daughter's wedding is another master scene, which shows his calm authoritative demeanour that instantly dulls Freddy's abrasiveness.
The next two hours chart their symbiotic relationship. For Lancaster, Freddy represents the ultimate challenge for his religion, a deeply deranged psychotic who is ripe for 'processing' and a cure. For Freddy, Lancaster is the only one who can stand being in his presence.
The film plays out their evolving relationship, sometimes consensual and sometimes at odds. And while There Will Be Blood strung together a collection of bold memorable set pieces and became an instant pop culture anchor, The Master is humble and understated, a slow burn which gets under your skin and lingers long after the lights go up.