Movie Review: THE MASTER Is A Sad, Beautiful Love Story

Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film covers cults and men and unconsummated love.

It’s almost perverse that Paul Thomas Anderson is so insistent on showing The Master in 70mm. The rarely used film format is usually associated with big epics and stunning wide shots - the sort of stuff that made up There Will Be Blood. But The Master is no epic; it’s a small story about two men, told largely indoors. It’s Punch Drunk Love, not Boogie Nights.

This is not a complaint, merely an observation. I found the 70mm to be so gorgeous, so pristine, that I occasionally worried I was being shown a digital presentation (which opened up an OCD film critic question - can I review this film off a DCP?). But it’s used in the service of a story whose scope is small, and whose interests are largely internal. It’s used in the service of what is basically a love story.

Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie Quell, a shell-shocked, astonishingly alcoholic WWII Navy vet. After VJ Day he returns to the world, but is unable to fit in. Spiralling down in a haze brought on by deadly moonshine he distills himself, Freddie sneaks aboard a yacht carrying Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, author, nuclear physicist, philosopher and guru of the self-help movement The Cause. Dodd takes a shine to Quell’s rough nature as well as his rotgut, and a friendship is born as the boat cruises from California to New York City.

Phoenix transcends acting. There’s never a moment of falseness or calculation in his performance, never a hint of anything but Freddie Quell in his eyes. The impulsiveness, the thick-headed qualty, the alcoholic daze are all documentary in their realness. I once worked with a high level functioning alcoholic, and the body language Phoenix brings - frail and pained yet always coiled for a fight - was like watching my old friend walk in front of me again. Phoenix has one lip snarled up and one eye squinted down, a strange mix of Popeye and Elvis, and his body is always folded over at the middle. He embodies physical discomfort, the constant dull hangover of the truly addled drunk.

In fact Phoenix’s performance is so good it almost goes past quality. This is the kind of performance where, if it were his first film, you would assume this is just what Joaquin Phoenix is like all the time. He’s like a subject PTA discovered and around whom he formed a movie, and that sort of true, deep in the bone marrow performance is sometimes the sort that glides right past us. We’re programmed to fall for big moments, huge gestures, capital A Acting, and that’s not what Phoenix does here. What he does in The Master is transform body and soul into Freddie Quell. It’s one of the all-time great movie performances, full stop.

Faced with this astonishing performance, Philip Seymour Hoffman steps up his game. Lancaster Dodd is very much a PSH character, a man of bluster and barely concealed anger that wells up just as much at himself as those around him. That this is the kind of character Hoffman excels at makes the achievement no less excellent, and Hoffman delivers a performance that is among his lifetime best.

The love story between the two men is complex and moving. It’s also very real. PTA goes out of his way to establish that Quell is a straight man - pussy obsessed, in fact - before putting these two together. And while their love is non-sexual, it’s fascinating to see how the pussy hound stops chasing tail once he’s under the sway of the Master. I think that acknowledging these two men are in love - fully in love - is the key to the movie; any other interpretation will be selling the relationship short.

For Dodd Quell is a primitive beast who appeals to his own lesser nature. The Cause seeks to place man above the animal kingdom - “We stand above that crowd,” Dodd keeps saying - but its leader is endlessly attracted to the more venal things in life. He loves Quell’s moonshine, and he is amused by the man’s antics, including farting. But there’s another side to Dodd, and that’s represented by his wife, played by Amy Adams.

Peggy Dodd is an icy, controlling woman - pregnant for most of the film’s running time, she’s a dominating mother figure. She doesn’t like Freddie or his booze or the effect he has on the Master, and she bristles at the man’s place in their organization. She’s the one keeping Dodd on the straight path, keeping an eye on a future for The Cause. Adams has one of those roles where people don’t realize how good she is, but as Peggy she’s tamping down her natural likeability in such a magnificent way, using it only when Peggy needs to pretend to be the beaming mother-to-be, not the hand that guides the cult.

The cult, The Cause, is of course modeled on Scientology. Dodd claims to have discovered secrets of the universe using a form of hypnotic past life regression, a process that can bring people back not only dozens of lifetimes but trillions of years. He has begun to gather a group of followers as well as detractors, and he is getting harassed by the law as his organization grows. The film’s view of The Cause is distant - Dodd’s son says it’s all a sham, and we see Dodd beginning to change aspects of the scifi-inflected teachings just to make the whole thing more palatable, but there are also signs that maybe it works in some way. Spoilers, perhaps, but it seems as though Freddie stops drinking completely after going through heavy Cause processing exercises.

Peggy and Freddie, by the way, represent the dual methods of control exerted by Scientology. Peggy controls Lancaster sexually and emotionally, manipulating him with a well-timed handjob. Freddie, meanwhile, beats the shit out of critics of The Cause. Intimidation and manipulation, fear and desire, force and blackmail, are the two axes of power for the cults, real and cinematic.

The distance the film keeps from The Cause is similar to the distance it keeps in general; gone is the sweaty insistence of Boogie Nights and amplified is the edging-on-icy viewpoint of There Will Be Blood. For the first part of the movie Anderson keeps his camera literally distanced from the action, often allowing objects to pass between the audience and what’s happening on screen. As Freddie finds himself getting involved with The Cause, the camera get tighter in on faces. The spaces Freddie and the Master inhabit get tighter, until they’re both locked in prison cells. As the film goes on that reverses, with the two of them racing motorcycles on salt flats and the Master’s UK office taking up a tiny part of an enormous, empty space.

There was an ugliness at the end of There Will Be Blood, but that’s not how The Master ends. There’s a sadness at the end of The Master, but also a sense that Freddie’s primal nature allows him to be his own man. One viewing of the film leaves me feeling not quite up to the task of interpreting the way Freddie uses his knowledge of The Cause processing at the end (I won’t spoil it), but while he remains lonely and alone, there isn’t the feeling of crushing nihilism found at the end of Daniel Plainview’s story.

Paul Thomas Anderson is obviously at the height of his powers right now. The Master is missing many of the immediate pleasures that gave his previous films their edge; there are not many set pieces and the time period and setting restrict the pop songs on the soundtrack. But he doesn’t need to rely on those things, and Anderson has crafted a character piece that is enthralling and engulfing. Which isn’t to say that he’s made a stodgy movie, and there are moments of sublime visual pleasure (PTA continues to film the best sloppy fight scenes in the world), but he’s really getting us going with scenes of people talking.

The Master is a remarkable film, and one that is worth revisiting many times. The visuals, the characters and the story will reward multiple viewings. What I’m curious about is what else the film holds, thematically deep inside of itself. Again and again PTA films prove to be layered experiences, slowly revealing themselves with time. I know that I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of The Master.