The Master, the sixth P.T. Anderson film starring Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, is for audiences who can forget everything they want to know about Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, and Tom Cruise. Anderson has made a film for those who can privilege atmosphere and method acting over plot; and when Phoenix’s drifting alcoholic Freddy Quell breaks silence with a fart, they can also forget about any pop-psychological explanation for his character and relationship with the eponymous Lancaster Dodd, played by Hoffman.
The Master takes shape after Quell – a broken-hearted, alcoholic, and mentally unstable World War II veteran – drunkenly stumbles onto Dodd’s yacht. And Dodd, being “a hopelessly inquisitive man,” accepts Quell into his new-age philosophical movement called “The Cause.”
The film can be taken as a polarizing one because it doesn’t attempt to rationalize its characters as much as float between them. The first image in Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood (2007), is of jagged California mountains; in this one it’s the image of an off-screen ship’s wake – a frothy junction between two bodies of water. Take these opening shots as caution for their larger goals: Blood had a form that led to a very clear zenith. By the time you finish The Master, however, you may wonder if you ever crossed the seam.
Anderson may have misled with his hush-hush topic of a new-age cult and 70mm retro-pretense. The film isn’t epic in story, but in performance. Phoenix’s magnetism’ works so well that you may wonder what the film would become without him. He eerily morphs into a doppelganger of Blood’s Daniel Plainview, with a gaunt face and side-skinned hair, but embodies a pity the latter never warranted. There’s a sadness in seeing someone so perverted by addiction and mental illness, but how is it equally wonderful to see Dodd and Freddy wrestle on the grass like a man and his dog? Hoffman makes a serious, honorable try at the film’s cult leader, but he’s the wrong kind of actor to play Dodd. The chemistry he creates between Freddy is genuine, yet there’s something a bit expected in Hoffman’s take on the character. His tantrum against a skeptic of “The Cause” early on in the film recalls another Anderson film, Punch-Drunk Love (2002), in which his slimy character would readily flush from listless to furious. Perhaps “wrong” is too harsh, but there’s no forgetting the usually capricious pudge underneath that blond mustache. Even in the 137 minutes of running time, Dodd never felt as wholly formed and inspired as Quell. Then again, carrying on the Paul Dano curse from Blood, even a great performance will be eclipsed by a brilliant one.
There’s no questioning that The Master is a strange film; whether it’s a good strange film, or a bad one, is another story. What should be said, however, is that The Master works more as a companion to There Will Be Blood’s seriousness, as opposed to the vibrancy in Boogie Nights (1997) or melodrama in Magnolia (1999). Nonetheless, The Master is Anderson at his most pensive – in his own long-winded, cyclical, and, some may say, confusing way. To look at his work thus far, it may appear that Blood marked a turning point in Anderson’s filmmaking, and it’s dubious if he’ll return to the smaller, lighter effervescence of something like Punch-Drunk Love. Though if The Master’s indulgent budget fails to recoup, he may just have to.
by TYLER WILSON