Movie Review: The Master
By Matthew Huntley
September 20, 2012

Tell Colin Firth that *I* give the king's speeches around here.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master plays like a great American novel, with deeply rooted themes of friendship, betrayal, cynicism and the search for truth, which collectively leave an indelible mark on your mind. I have not seen a film this layered or complex in a long time; it left me pondering what was real, what was artificial and what I should make of the characters’ behavior. This is the type of film viewers of all kinds can (and will) mull over to the point of frustration since it refuses to provide easy or definite answers. For that and other reasons, it’s sometimes a challenge to get through, but one thing is certain: it’s remarkably well made.

If William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is the romantic story of World War II soldiers returning home to an America that no longer suits them, then The Master is its colder, darker and more misanthropic brother (and The Best Years had its own share of darkness). Anderson’s film is also about the struggles of a scarred soldier trying to find a place and himself after the Second World War, but it goes further into his psychosis and refuses to stay within the confines of a traditional narrative.

When it opens, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a navy man and social outcast, is enjoying his R&R on a beach just after V-J Day. We suppose Freddie is celebrating the United States’ victory by pouring alcohol into a coconut and guzzling it alone, but we soon realize he’d be doing this anyway. Freddie functions by drinking and will go to any means necessary to feed his addiction - if you can even call it an addiction. For Freddie, making and drinking alcohol has become a way of life. It’s obvious he acquired a taste for alcohol a long time ago and it’s been his master ever since. He doesn’t even put up a fight.

On the beach, Freddie’s peers build a sand woman, which Freddie pretends to have intercourse with. At first, he makes everybody laugh, but as he continues, he begins to draw baffled looks, which, for Freddie, is typical. He’s a troubled, strange and volatile man with a dark sense of humor, ruled by impulse and repressed anger. This partly explains why when he returns to America, he can’t hold a job, although no matter where he finds himself, he always manages, rather effortlessly, to find the ingredients - any ingredients - to make a drink.

One night, after fleeing his latest job as a cabbage picker when his homemade moonshine nearly kills a farmhand, Freddie happens upon the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), himself a former navy man. Freddie awakens the next morning and is unaware of his raucous behavior the night before. But Dodd takes an immediate liking to him, not to mention the special “potion” Freddie concocted. In fact, Dodd agrees to overlook Freddie as a stowaway if he makes more of it and even invites him to stay for his daughter’s wedding.

We come to learn Dodd is not just some ordinary tycoon, but the wizard behind a religious organization called The Cause, which claims that humans can recall memories from their past lives - as far back as “trillions of years ago” - and have the inherent mental power to cure themselves of diseases such as leukemia. Dodd thinks Freddie would make a perfect case study for his second book and subjects him to a series of exercises, including one where he tests Freddie’s patience and endurance by having him sit across from Dodd’s new son-in-law (Rami Malek), who berates Freddie’s beloved ex-girlfriend. Dodd is allegedly trying to free Freddie’s mind so it can withstand any and all external conflicts.

There are some people who truly believe in The Cause, like Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern), who invites Dodd and his family to give a demonstration at her home in Alabama. Still others, like Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), have a constant look of caution and doubt on their face. Peggy probably refuses to say anything out of fear it might shake her comfortable and privileged lifestyle. But Dodd’s own son (Jesse Plemons) thinks his father is “making it up as he goes along,” and one of the running questions throughout the film is whether Dodd’s religion is a scam. Fortunately, Anderson leaves it up to us to decide, which makes the film much more interesting. It avoids safe answers and interpretations, flipping our most basic expectations for how any scene will play out upside down. This is one film you can’t predict.

There have been numerous parallels drawn between The Cause and Scientology, but whether or not they’re valid is irrelevant to us because The Master is not about The Cause as much as it is the undulating relationship between Lancaster and Freddie, which is sometimes a friendship and at other times master-student and even master-slave. It’s their dynamic that drives the film and it’s fascinating and exhausting all at once because we never know which way it’s going to swing.

With more traditional films, actors often have the luxury of a formulaic screenplay to fall back on, but here, with such an ambitious script, the cast must create and maintain wholly original and capricious characters. The results are performances that are nothing short of incredible and actors who disappear into them. One could argue Phoenix and Hoffman are a bit histrionic at times, but the material calls for it, and although they’ll likely draw the most praise, I think Adams has the most challenging role because it’s her character we’re most primed to see in terms of clichés. We expect her to cheat on her husband with Freddie, leave Lancaster out of disgust for his extra-marital affairs, or do something extreme because, deep down, she suspects her husband is a fraud. Together, Anderson and Adams defy those expectations and Peggy’s behavior is perfectly credible.

As praiseworthy as The Master is on many levels - directing, acting, cinematography (Mihai Malaimare Jr. shoots in deep, harrowing wide shots with a haunting depth of field) - it’s not always entertaining to watch. Yes, it’s rich, powerful and artistic, and both young and seasoned filmmakers could stand to learn from Anderson’s mode of storytelling, but to say the film always touches or engages the audience would not be accurate. I often felt at a distance from what the film was trying to convey and found my mind wandering. That’s not because of what the movie is about, but how it’s about it. Parts of it are slow, tedious and overwrought and I felt Anderson, like he did too often in There Will Be Blood, was overstating his case. I’m open to the possibility The Master could gain potency and insight over the course of several viewings, but my initial impression is while it has the ingredients to be a full-fledged masterpiece, it doesn’t always utilize them properly. Perhaps another run through the editing process would have done it some good, because the energy level is sometimes too low to make it both a captivating experience as well as a cerebral one. A great film doesn’t just make us think (as this one certainly does); it’s also constantly moving (which this one doesn’t always do).

Still, The Master reminds us just how bold and intelligent the cinema can be, which is saying a lot. There’s often a hesitation in Hollywood to make films like it, probably because their commercial appeal is limited and audiences tend not to respond to stories that aren’t so straightforward. Fortunately filmmakers like Anderson have enough traction and effrontery to see they get made. While The Master isn’t always exciting to watch, it opens our eyes to a renewed sense of cinematic interpretation. There’s perhaps more to admire about it than like, but because our admiration is so high, it leaves us in an uncommon state of thought and wonder. This type of reaction to a movie is rare this day and age, but my hope is The Master will help make it more of a custom and less of an aberration.