James Reviews Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master [Theatrical Review]

It’s taken me a week to sit down and finally write this review. When Anderson comes out with a new film, it’s a big deal in the critic’s world. We all jump up and down, hoping for the next masterpiece from this auteur. Having seen the film twice, in glorious 70mm (the last film I saw in that format was Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet back in 1996), I was in awe and didn’t know how to properly articulate what I had just seen. Most writers would rush on home to write this review. Or use their iPad, cellphone or laptop that they took with them, find the nearest Starbucks, and proceed to throw their ideas onto the keyboard and post it on the web as soon as possible. Which there’s nothing wrong with at all. But this film felt like it deserved a thoughtful approach from me. Especially since I’ve been missing in action on the writing side here. What better way to dust off the cobwebs by taking this film and going to town on it.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a disillusioned man, having left the Navy after World War II, lost in the world with his own inner demons, be it a bad upbringing or his constant alcohol abuse. We see him drinking bomb oil, mixing his own concoctions from photography chemicals that should kill him but instead makes him into a Mr. Hyde character, especially when we see him after drinking and he’s become irritable, animal-like, and starts to prod at this man trying to take a picture for his wife until finally he gets struck and they proceed to fight with one another. Freddie then leaves that job to pick vegetables on farmland somewhere where he mistakenly (?) kills an old man with his homemade hooch and runs away before he can get in trouble. This is where he stumbles upon The Master, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) during a party on a ship. He wakes up and gets introduced to Dodd, who asks him to stay on board. And thus starts a bonding, good and bad, through sickness and in health, that will change their lives forever.

Sounds very cliche, doesn’t it? That’s my fault entirely though, because the truth of the matter is that this film is to be seen to be believed and truly appreciated. So before you read on, get to see this as soon as you can (I know it goes wider on September 21st and will hopefully continue to take over). Having seen it twice, as I said earlier, the whole Scientology connection people tried to make right away when Anderson had spoken about it and after we saw the first trailer, is more or less poppycock. He uses it as a slight of hand, a basic jumping point, but the film itself is a character piece, seeing this battle of wits between Freddie and Lancaster. It’s not as if it’s Sherlock Holmes battling Moriarty, but more like Faust and the Devil himself. It might seem like a bit of fishing, but I’ll go into a bit of detail.

Having watched De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise recently for the 100th time, it is a more literal (and musical) telling of the Faust tale. The Master, if we are to believe, is this ‘more than a man’ figure who is going to lead a new belief system for years to come, we see he is a man of science. Yet he focuses his attention on a ‘religion’, a faith based system, which is catching on slowly but surely in America, and is starting to be feared by naysayers and other intellectuals. His own son, Val (Jesse Plemons) tells Freddie that his dad is just making it up as he goes along. He can doze off and come back in with his speeches and not miss a thing. But Lancaster has become a believer in his own system, due to his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) pushing him along. A fall from grace, if you will. Dodd is a charismatic figure, possibly not understanding the power he possesses over people, and has an anger within that comes out (‘Pig Fucker!’), just like Freddie himself, who he continuously calls an animal.

So where the Devil/Faust connection comes up again and again is that Freddie is tempted by this individual, falling in love with his belief system, becoming a devout follower of The Cause, his right hand lapdog who will do anything for his master. Instead of getting unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures, Freddie starts to become comfortable with himself, understanding his anger, his shortcomings and possibly his liquor dependency as well. But that temptation pulls Freddie back and forth between Lancaster and his inner demons and it might be too powerful for even the Master and The Cause to handle.

It’s good to have Phoenix back on the big screen, without a big beard and rapping away. Mind you, that was a fine performance, but this role of Freddie Quell seems to be the more realistic depiction of a man who has been lost for awhile, nobody giving him a chance because he left the good path behind until one man keeps trying to give him the love and attention he deserves. Hoffman, as Dodd, is also in top form here, to the point where when it’s Oscar season, they might ruin their chances of winning the best actor nod, considering they both should be up for the honor. When I spoke about a ‘battle of wits’ before, I was speaking of a few scenes in particular, such as the first scene where Lancaster sits Freddie down for some questions, and it’s a scene more harrowing than most action or horror films, where you will be at the edge of your seat, not being able to blink your eyes, just like Freddie. Another scene featuring a wall and a window, is a showcase of a man at the edge of his sanity, seemingly finding himself afterward but possibly questioning this faith even more.

Amy Adams should not be forgotten, as she is almost in Lady MacBeth territory, showing her true position and power throughout the film. She’s very friendly to Freddie one moment, the next slapping him around and giving him an ultimatum of ‘either you stop drinking or you leave The Cause’. She also, with the help of Lancaster’s daughter and son in law, pool together their grievances about Freddie to Lancaster, to no avail. Even when Lancaster is questioning the system himself, Peggy is there to reaffirm him by a sexual scene in front of a mirror that builds and builds as she speaks some words and by the end of it, he is fully back on board. It seems like another day at the job for her, as she reaches over his back to grab a hand towel, wiping away what she’s done and tossing it in the hamper to be cleaned with the rest of the dirty laundry.

Johnny Greenwood’s score is also one of the best to come out, well, since his last one for There Will Be Blood. And this is coming from someone who listens to the Drive, Attack the Block, Tron Legacy, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and Sherlock Holmes soundtracks nonstop. But Greenwood’s fully builds upon the characters, giving shape and form to the scenes in the film. The Master feels more complete because of it, and without it would still be powerful, but wouldn’t be memorable. As I travel around the city, I listen to it and remember scenes and get chills reacquainting myself with those memories.

Like the ending of Inglourious Basterds, where Aldo Raine looks down at the camera in the final shot and says, “You know somethin’, Utivich? I think this just might be my masterpiece.”, this film’s title is not only in reference to Dodd’s character, but Paul Thomas Anderson giving a nod to the audience and anybody who had been waiting these last 5 years since his last masterpiece. While watching the film a second time, the names Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick came up, not only based on my viewing but reading other initial thoughts of the film. But when I was done with the film, only one name came up: Paul Thomas Anderson. And I know I’m not the only one who hopes it’s not another 5 years until his next masterpiece.