If The Master is the will of one man, that man being the creative and visionary American auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, and is in turn the basis of cult, consider me a follower. Consider me ready to join.
In the most grandiose way a filmmaker can, PTA gives us Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic, PTSD-suffering World War II veteran who has found himself very much lost and alone in the empty and challenging post-war America.
The Master is very much a tale of time, space and travel. Quell’s almost vagabond qualities, moving from one pointless and worthless job to another, is very much a part of the emptiness he’s confronted with after serving in the military. He’s a traveler of the seas. It’s the only way of life that has suited him in his adult years.
And until he finds his way to the boat Alethia, departing from San Francisco with the Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman), known intimately to others as Lancaster Dodd, and his philosophical movement The Cause and its followers on board, Quell’s insignificant life has no meaning.
I’ve now seen The Master twice in the last four days. PTA’s film is scattered with rich ideas of war, love, fraudulent leaders, religion and brainwashing among the countless other concepts and instances of philosophy PTA throws our way. It can’t be entirely consumed in one or even two sittings. I’m already wanting to see it again. But both viewings were followed with rich discussions that can allow us to connect with the film and its characters on even the most basic outlying level. And that is the most important thing about this grand masterpiece.
At the heart of the PTA’s latest visionary and wholly original film is the relationship between Quell and Dodd. They offer the audience different qualities, perspectives and ideas and together form something more complete than the fragmented lives they display on their own. Quell wants to have Dodd’s understanding of life and Dodd wants to have Quell’s freedoms. Taking Quell under his wing almost immediately after meeting him, Dodd displays his transfixing behavior and desire to correct what the erratic and misbehaving Quell can’t see is wrong.
Perhaps the best moment in the film is bookended by the two men imbibing in two glasses of Quell’s dark room alcohol poison created with paint thinner and other surely toxic elements. This is the first of many instances where Dodd, in the role of the Master, tries to get inside of Quell’s mind. It works. From the first downing of Quell’s concoction to the second the audience is engaged in an absolutely grabbing sequence of inquisitive processing. Dodd dives into Quell’s darkness, finds what he is running from and forces Quell to be more truthful. A flashback has us digging into Quell’s love life when we meet Doris, the young girl from his Massachusetts hometown that wrote him during the war that Quell left behind and regretfully never returned to see.
This is an unquestionably moving and serious sequence that attaches the audience to these two characters, mostly Quell, in an emotional way for the first time in the film. And then, suddenly, as the two down their second shot of Quell’s alcoholic potion, the two share a laugh, smoke a cigarette and together with the audience snap out of their serious discussion and exhale into laughter. PTA, the true master of this film, says he’s going to allow us to breathe for a moment or two. He controls our emotions and our feelings like I’ve never been controlled in a cinema before.
As is common with PTA’s films, the director gets the most out of all of his actors. Phoenix, in his first performance since his faux documentary I’m Still Here that was supposedly the beginning of his retirement from acting, is in absolute control of a character who isn’t in control of much. There’s real anger, frustration and confusion that can be found in Phoenix’s knockout performance, which should garner a number of accolades this awards season. Everything from Phoenix’s voice, word pronunciation, posture, gestures and facial expressions is absolutely tailored to Quell’s erratic and unpredictable behavior and Phoenix quickly melts his way into a immersive performance early on in the film.
The veteran Hoffman works opposite Phoenix for the majority of his screen time and like Phoenix is in control of a character. The difference between the two is that Dodd is clearly in control of more than Quell is and has a higher level of understanding than Quell. That said, he isn’t in control of as much as we are meant to believe. What he can control is his followers, his believers and the ones he’s brainwashed enough to never leave his side. He can’t control the attacks, the critics and the others who judge his work. He acknowledges his inability to control those who resist his methods, which is why Quell is such a ripe subject. He’s found a lost sailor and he’s going to do his best to morph him into something different. Hoffman’s performance is strenuous and tough, he keeps Dodd’s facade up as long as he possibly can and works through the pain of fighting and arguing with his detractors just as Dodd does. These are two performances that won’t go away anytime soon. Phoenix and Hoffman are so engaged and so perfect.
At the very heart of the very post-war The Master is a case of a lost identity. Quell knows his name, he knows what he’s done and he knows where he’s been. He might not know what any of it means, but he does understand his life up until this point. What is clear that he doesn’t know is where he’s supposed to be going. He lost that at war. He lost that a long time ago. That is the push and pull of Quell and Dodd. Dodd, forcing Quell to question what he’s done and where he’ll be going, has the two engaged to the very end. They embrace, they detach. They are never in a constant level relationship for too long. It is the venerable teacher and protege character relationship none of us know the right answer to.
PTA’s film is destined to become another American classic. Like There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and his other films before it, The Master also achieves an unbeatable feeling of classicism. He makes films we aren’t used to seeing. He takes on the most flawed and the most troubled. They might not be the most important people, but PTA certainly makes them seem like they are. And led by PTA’s visionary eye for setting a scene and telling a grandiose story The Master is indeed the will of one man, but is made and welded into a near perfect masterpiece by many others.