Following a stint as sailor in the US Navy during WWII, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has become a drifter, bouncing from one job to the next due to his disturbingly odd quirks – including the concoction of mixed drinks from poisonous chemicals like paint thinner – getting him fired. One night after nearly poisoning a man with one of his drinks, Freddie stows away on a yacht captained by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an author and leader of a philosophical movement known as “The Cause.” Dodd finds a drunken Freddie on board, but instead of throwing him off, Dodd decides to keep him on board after taking a liking to some of his mixed drinks. Dodd soon takes an interest in trying to help Freddie through his questionable hypnosis techniques, despite the concerns of his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and his followers. As Freddie’s past and violent behaviors slowly become apparent to Dodd and questions about Dodd’s strange methods begin to circle Freddie’s mind, the two strangers start to question whether the other one is worth keeping around or not.
The Master is the newest film from reclusive director Paul Thomas Anderson, known for his eclectic style that ranges from the 70s flavored dramedy Boogie Nights to the grand scale period epic There Will Be Blood. Yet, despite his eclectic choices in terms of what type of films he does, Anderson does have at least one recurring element that runs throughout all his films; anti-social characters that disturb people in the most fascinating ways. The Master is no exception. The major theme of this film in particular revolves around the two leads that, despite their best attempts to hide it, are equally bitter and hot tempered social derelicts. Phoenix and Hoffman are the highlights of the film and their performances, despite being quite different, are two sides of the same coin. On one side, you’ve got Joaquin playing a mentally unstable man that doesn’t hide his abnormality from civilized society, with his hunched over posture, inhuman alcohol consumption and erratic reactions to any given situation, all of which are embodied in spellbinding fashion by Phoenix in a role worthy of giving him the comeback that he needed after the I’m Still Here fiasco. Meanwhile, you’ve got Hoffman who outwardly appears as a warm and jovial leader towards his followers and society at large in order to disguise his irrational and embittered true self. It all culminates in a funny, but striking jail scene that puts the two of them on the same level playing field. Their duality almost plays like a weird bromance of sorts, with the one being entranced by the other due to their unseen bond of embittered anti-social personalities just bubbling so close to the surface.
Now, the big elephant in the room on this one is obvious, as it’s been the major thing that media outlets have covered in reference to this one; how much does Dodd’s cult in the movie resemble Scientology? To be honest… the audience is never really given the specifics on that. The cult’s antics are usually in the background while the Dodd/Freddie relationship takes the main stage. This isn’t a bad thing, as that relationship does carry the film for the majority of the time. However, it does become a bit confusing once people start questioning Dodd’s methods when his methods haven’t really been detailed that much. Plus, this sort of ambiguity hurts the film’s pacing when Anderson drags out certain techniques that Dodd practices in a way that makes the 137-minute runtime seem sluggish. The few glimpses we do get are engaging though, particularly when Amy Adams’ character takes the reigns for Dodd when he’s too weak to take charge of a situation. There’s also some great scenes involving Dodd’s attempts to turn Freddie into a believer through mindless hypnotic repetition that show just how unpredictable Freddie is as a character.
There’s still plenty of other engrossing elements to keep the film going when the cult details and pacing become lacking. Just as he did on Anderson’s previous effort There Will Be Blood, Radiohead guitarist/keyboard player Jonny Greenwood gives the film an eclectic score that fits the early 50s setting perfectly while never distracting from the visuals. Speaking of visuals, Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Maliamare Jr. do such a gorgeous job at capturing that same era through images. The most striking scenes are whenever Freddie takes photos of people, where the actors being photographed are lite so perfectly so as to look exactly like an actual photo from that time. It shows just how gifted Anderson and his crew are.
While not his strongest effort, Paul Thomas Anderson continues to present himself as an accomplished filmmaker. His character work here is just as inspired as usual, the performances of Hoffman and Phoenix deserve all the acclaim they get and there’s all sorts of technical facets that make the film engaging on a cinematic level, even when the plot lags. It’s safe to say that I’ll be waiting in anticipation for Anderson’s next project… which, knowing his productivity, means I’ll be waiting awhile.