(Joaquin Phoenix as the tormented young man and drifter ensnared in the divine realm of a magnetic huckster (Philip Seymour Hoffman, below) in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. Images courtesy of the Weinstein Company.)
Every Paul Thomas Anderson movie since his second feature Boogie Nights has been crucial and necessary. Still, The Master has no corollary in his career.
The director’s first film in the five years since There Will Be Blood was shot largely in the wide-gauge format 65mm and features the first performance by the talented Joaquin Phoenix in some four years and concerns a deeply contentious subject matter, a supposed origins inquiry into the controversial Church of Scientology.
The movie screened, covertly and otherwise, for about a month leading to its formal premieres at Venice and Toronto. These nearly underground screenings suggested something furtive, sensational and magnificent igniting a broader discussion of whether The Master constitutes a transcendent work of art, a takedown of Scientology or perhaps something in between, a flawed and incomplete work alternately ecstatic and gorgeous and grounded in the director’s trademark stylistic and formal preoccupations.
The Master is audacious and problematic, never less than captivating and brilliant though somewhat unformed and emotionally cool. The opening half hour is so jaw-dropping I expected the film to match or possibly exceed that. Despite my reluctance to declare the movie great, I am thrilled by its existence. Current film culture is all the more vital because the movie stands before us, and Anderson’s eccentric and bravura individualism marks the kind of ambition that needs to be encouraged and facilitated.
Visually, the movie is extraordinary, packed with a vivid and sensual detail that is absolutely intoxicating. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., working with Anderson for the first time, finds a glint-eyed solidity and strangeness. The images pop, annotating the haunting, melancholy late nineteen-forties and early fifties production design of Jack Fisk and David Crank with a thrilling verisimilitude and documentary exactness.
Anderson’s theme is his typical one, the damaged and strangely symbiotic relationship of two peculiar men. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the charismatic leader of an unorthodox religion known as the Cause whose self-declared “guinea pig,” is the psychologically damaged former naval officer Freddie (played by Phoenix, in his first lead performance since James Gray’s Two Lovers) who falls prey to his intoxicating tutelage.
The opening passages, set in the waning stages of the Second World War in the Pacific theater, are probably the most sustained and brilliant of its director‘s career, documenting with verve and visual acuity Freddie’s alarming sexual pathology and moral emptiness. The sailor is clearly traumatized by his war experiences and unable to assimilate to civilian life.
Water is the dominant image of the movie, suggestive of re-birth and transcendence. Like the astounding opening twenty minutes of There Will Be Blood, Anderson creates a heightened lyricism through a series of linking images and the strikingly layered soundtrack. Plot has never been the director’s primary interest, and he seems much more engaged experimenting with the dynamic and expressive qualities of the medium to create a state of being lacerating in its implications, especially socially and sexually.
The movie’s opening image (which he repeats twice), the foreboding and dark trails of ocean water emitted in the wake of a Navy vessel’s propulsion is the first of several stark and rhyming images suggestive of flight, movement and transience. The others are a stunning dissolve that moves from Freddie’s Navy psychiatric evaluation to the close-up of a beautiful blonde that introduces his work as a studio photographer at a department store; a ravishing and musically sustained tracking shot following a young woman model a fur jacket inside the same store; or the opening of the door, like John Ford’s opening and closing shots of The Searchers, of Freddie’s panic stricken flight from a Salinas cabbage field.
The movie is very Wellesian; the opening owes a great deal to Orson Welles’s great 1946 noir The Lady from Shanghai. In The Master, the fates of the two men intersect after Freddie seeks shelter on the yacht, lent by a wealthy New York benefactress, Dodd has commanded to carry out his unorthodox religious practices. In The Lady from Shanghai, the yacht party moves from New York to San Francisco. Anderson reverses that movement. Hoffman, imperial, baroque and charming, has the Wellesian bravado just right.
“Don’t apologize,” he says to Freddie. “You’re a scoundrel.”
Just as Daniel Day-Lewis’s Blood performance appropriated the cadence and sounds of John Huston, Hoffman adopts Welles’s volatile combination of whispery solicitude and outrageous bombast. Hoffman’s “master,” at once puppeteer and huckster, identifies himself as variously “a scientist, a connoisseur, a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher but, above all else, a hopelessly inquisitive man.”
In the first of several tense encounters between the two men that function as Lancaster’s inquisition over the tremulous Freddie, Anderson holds the camera tight to their faces, never flinching, in a long unbroken take, and the effect is hypnotic and galvanizing, punctuated with an elegant dolly of Freddie's recovered memory of the beautiful and innocent young girl he still fixates on.
Anderson cannot sustain that virtuosity. (I am not sure who could.) The images are never less than potent, suggestive and dreamy, especially a sexually hallucinatory moment where Freddie imagines all the women surrounding Lancaster during a musical number naked. In the second half, the storytelling becomes more elliptical and fragmented, the rhythms more discontinuous, the story suddenly lurching from place to place, Philadelphia, Arizona and England and the movie slowly, unambiguously, turns inward and static.
For better or worse, the movie belongs to Phoenix. It’s a big Method performance, and Phoenix (who often suggests a more muscular Montgomery Clift) is certainly compelling though also limited and repetitive, especially his inflections and physical gestures, particularly how he continually suggests a man wholly uncomfortable inside his own skin.
Like Mark Wahlberg’s debased porn actor in Boogie Nights, the young interloper constructs an elaborate alternative family that unleashes all manner of unintended conflict when the other members of the insular and tight-knit group, especially Amy Adams, playing Lancaster’s wife, consider him too willful, naive and insufficiently faithful to the dictates of the new religion.
Anderson’s Oedipal-inflected stories are his go-to position, but he never takes the material in a truly revolutionary direction that deepens it psychologically or emotionally. Anderson makes explicit the homoerotic connection of the two men during a reconciliation following Freddie’s release from jail, Dodd pulling and tackling the young man so severely he splits the seam of his pants. Freddie’s a torrent of contradictions and his capacity for violence, his homicidal need to legitimize Dodd’s convictions, is insufficiently explored dramatically or emotionally, especially when the inevitable rupture between the two occurs. (It echoes the estrangement of Prince Hal and Falstaff in Welles’s greatest film, Chimes at Midnight.)
The movie’s circular structure, ending where it began, invokes a kind of reverie for a lost Eden, linking it with such essential and iconic works as In Search of Lost Time, Ulysses and Citizen Kane (a final Welles acknowledgement Anderson alludes to when Freddie meets Dodd at his office in England). The ending magnifies the movie’s polar state, and it leaves you dazed though anxious.
Having just returned from Toronto, I am prepared to admit The Master puts to shame almost everything in its wake. Conversely, the too subdued ending underscored the nagging and unmistakable sense of missed opportunities.
I doubt seeing another movie this year that leaves me so exhilarated and unfulfilled.