Movie Review: THE MASTER Is Magnificent

Paul Thomas Anderson’s unblinking character study is spellbinding and assured.

The Master is not the scathing, shrouded criticism of Scientology that you’ve heard. Instead it is a deeply provoking study of two men at once at odds with themselves yet powerfully present. The Master is a story of profound yearning masked by material gratification. It is challenging, perplexing, at times infuriating – and always thoughtful. Indelible. And always, always beautiful.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a sailor in the Navy at the end of World War II. After the end of the war clears his schedule, he drifts between jobs and towns, a rolling tumult of self-destruction and addiction. Freddie is fight or flight incarnate, chaos that cannot be quelled. He throws punches then flees, he indulges his every whim, he creates trouble and discord everywhere he goes - he drinks, he drinks, he drinks.

After Freddie’s turbulent lifestyle results in tragedy, he flees once again, this time to San Francisco where a beautifully lit ship filled with the sounds of celebration floats in the harbor. He stows himself away and is discovered by the master of this ship and its inhabitants, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is the magnetic leader of a shadowy movement called The Cause, and after becoming enamored of Freddie’s potent brand of moonshine (the secret ingredient of which is paint thinner) and Freddie himself, Dodd takes the troubled sailor under his wing.

A host of qualities indicate that Dodd could be considered a stand-in for L. Ron Hubbard: his pseudo-scientific background, his nomadic lifestyle, his multiple wives and myriad publications, the establishment of his movement in the early 1950s. But Hoffman, to no one’s surprise, offers no hollow imitation but a powerful creation of his own. Dodd is a force, an enigma, a self-described “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher.” But above all, he says, he’s “a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man.”

Dodd both is and is not a fraud. He seems to understand, on some level, that he has stumbled onto a philosophy (of past lives, of self-help, of time travel and memory recall) that works for many people, in which his followers deeply believe – perhaps more fervently than Dodd himself. But Hoffman plays Dodd with considerable warmth and depth. He is charismatic and articulate and smooth, yes, and he uses words like “’tis” to irritatingly solemn effect, but he is authentic in the love he has for those around him. His eyes brim with tears as he looks upon the lost Freddie, and that emotion is no sham. Dodd’s charisma lies within his ability to believe his own fiction – most of the time. When he no longer can – when he is called on it, when he isn’t up to the task of defending the tenuous doctrine of The Cause – he rages, a storm that is somehow both fearsome and inadequate.

And Freddie rages with him. The Cause gives Freddie a focus for his mania, something to violently defend. In some ways Freddie seems the ideal cult bait, buying into everything The Cause delivers without consideration or question. Whether the philosophy behind The Cause is truth or invention doesn’t matter to him. He needs The Cause because it is a place to belong, and Freddie needs to belong someplace. But his passion, his tempestuousness, his rage do no favors for The Cause. As Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) says, “He’s dangerous, and he will be our undoing.”

Phoenix gives an astonishing physical performance as Freddie. He is twisted and broken, even on the outside. He screws up his face until it seems to be nothing but those remarkable eyes. He is scrawny and hunched, walking as a shattered thing, jerky and severe. He is weird and childish, direct and careless, oddly sexy. There is so much pain in Freddie’s eyes, and so much warmth in Dodd’s. Phoenix and Hoffman both seem capable of feeling ten times more than a regular human.

Freddie and Dodd are two vastly different faces of the same fear. They see the truth in each other: Freddie knows Dodd is a phony. Dodd knows Freddie is a liability. But they need each other, and The Master is a demonstration of that need. The need to believe. They fill the schism inside in different ways – Dodd is drunk on power, Freddie is drunk from drinking. But these two men, as broken as they are on the inside, are tremendously present. They have huge, electric personalities matched in energy and allure. They walk in step. But Dodd has learned to feed that energy, while Freddie’s eats him from within.

Laura Dern (as a follower of The Cause) and Jesse Plemons (as Dodd’s quietly disdainful son) offer the best of many wonderful supporting performances, but the most extraordinary transformation belongs to Adams as Peggy Dodd. She at first appears the retiring wife required of any leader, but at heart she is a fierce creature, the backbone of both The Cause and Dodd himself. She is unmovable and hard as stone, a might of willpower that could be the only true salvation for The Cause. It’s a role so unlike anything Adams has done before, and seeing her reunited with Hoffman after Doubt is a genuine pleasure.

And surrounding this strange, mesmerizing story and these mighty performances is Paul Thomas Anderson’s unwavering command of cinema. I saw a flawless 70mm print that filled me with yearning at every frame – I wanted each moment to last longer, I missed shots the second they were over. I have stood in the ocean in real life and I have never seen anything as beautiful as the ocean in The Master. Freddie is a photographer in the film, working first in department store portraits before laboring to capture the appeal of Dodd on film. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., working on 65mm film, reveals the magic of photography, a medium that is both fleeting and permanent.

Much of The Master is filmed indoors, making me think how much more suitable There Will Be Blood might have been for 70mm, but the few landscape and seascape scenes are some of the most breathtaking moments ever captured on celluloid. And even the interiors are stunning, drenched in natural light with layered shadows and texture that is almost tangible.

And the sound of the film is incredible, even spellbinding at times. The score by Jonny Greenwood is ethereal and unsettling, adding to the general atmosphere of unease that Anderson has created.

And yet The Master is also very funny, a strange, unexpected sort of humor that bubbles up through the tension. As Dodd “processes” Freddie – a system very similar to Scientology’s auditing in which deeply personal questions are asked over and over in order to reveal some sort of inner truth – the scene is fraught with pressure and sorrow, one of the tightest moments of the film as we learn more about Freddie than we care to know. Until Freddie begins to laugh, and Dodd laughs along with him. “It’s good to laugh during processing.”

With every element at play so well-crafted, the question remains: is The Master a satisfying movie? And in the conventional sense, it isn’t. While it’s a straightforward narrative for the most part (other than some easily recognizable flashbacks and dream sequences), the movie asks more of the audience than the typical introduction, conflict, resolution, epilogue. It’s a tough movie to watch, stark and painful at heart, yet impossibly beautiful on its surface. At times it feels as if The Master is richer in technique than emotion.

Because the film isn’t emotional in the sense that we trust these characters and root for them. We do not love Freddie Quell or Lancaster Dodd. The emotional connection isn’t with the characters but within them. We connect not with Freddie or Dodd as people but with their yearning, their need to believe in something bigger than themselves - even when deep down, they know it's futile, and so do we.