Possibly contains spoilers…between the lines at least. Sorry.
The Master lands not as just a film, but as an Event. Ever since Paul Thomas Anderson went to California with Daniel Day Lewis, expectations have been sky high. This tale of post war America and the beginning of a cult called “The Cause” (Not Scientology, never Scientology.) sees Anderson taking on another turbulent period of America`s recent past.
Freddie Quells (Jaoquin Phoenix) is introduced on a beach in the South Pacific at the death of World War 2. He is already a tragic figure, hunched, slurring, drunk on hooch (containing torpedo fuel!), ignored by most, masturbating into the sea. Life on his return to America doesn’t get any easier. His volatile temperament and seemingly magical ability to make homemade booze from anything get him fired from jobs as he drifts across America searching for something. Leaping over the rails of a ship bound out of San Francisco makes as much sense as the rest of his life has. He is awoken and dragged before the ship’s ostensible commander, Lancaster Dodds (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd’s describes himself as a “…a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher but most of all a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man…”. Dodd’s takes a shine to Freddie and his volcanic homebrew, taking him under his wing and teaching him of “The Cause”, his quasi-religious family of past life explorers. This is the crux of The Master. The relationship between Dodds and Quells. This is explored to such a level as to become almost a character study. Scenes of an ambiguous nature abound, purely to show tiny fractures or changes within the dynamic.
The performances that Hoffman and Phoenix deliver in their master and slave roles are astonishing. Given half an hour with Freddie before Lancaster even makes an appearance, it’s difficult to believe Hoffman will be able to stand up to such a tour de force from Phoenix. Shuffling, mumbling, sneering with hooded eyes and an unspoken air of violence, it’s an intensely physical performance. Quell’s inner rage is palpable and in several confrontations and scuffles, visibly painful. Phoenix has portrayed a character so expertly that mentioning him alongside De Niro’s troubled duo of Jake La Motta and Travis Bickle doesn’t feel like sacrilege. When Hoffman finally appears, his power is instantly obvious. Charismatic and still, he calmly guides Freddie and the rest of his cadre through the ins and outs of his thinkings. Never showing any doubt. He is the perfect counterpoint to all of Phoenix’s tics and lilted cadences. When giving speeches he makes little jokes with an overly expressive face, much like a certain Foster Kane, he’s a showboat, performing for everyone, family included. In long careers full of interesting roles it’s questionable whether either has ever been better suited to or executed a performance better.
The homo-eroticism is pronounced, at least one way. Quells never really shows any signs of being attracted to Dodds, being a simple creature in his black and white world the option probably never occurs to him. Dodds, however, spends his time wrestling Quells to the floor for rough and tumble, begging Freddie to return to him, plaintively screaming his name across the desert and serenading him in the denouement. Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams) even resorts to warning him against his fantastical pursuit of Freddie, masturbating him over a sink and demanding he orgasm to re-assert her sexual superiority in Dodd’s wandering mind. This is certainly a new edge to Anderson’s regular forays into the father/son relationship. Dodd’s at once wants to father Freddie, dominate him in the master/slave role and at least entertains the idea of sex with him. Perhaps this is the reason Dodds allows such a splenetic failure as Quells to remain within his family for so long.
The Master hinges on three scenes. First, there is Freddie’s first “processing” by Lancaster, a scene where the walls around Quell’s mind are broken down through persistent questioning, this cements the bond between the two men as it’s doubtful whether Freddie has ever revealed so much. Next, in adjacent cells after Dodds has been arrested for misappropriation of funds, Dodds stands tall and calm whilst Quells destroys his cell like an animal, this is the first time Freddie questions Lancaster’s integrity, something he doesn’t take kindly to all film. Finally we have a scene of Freddie traveling into his physical past, rather than his mental one The Cause has been having him visit, only to find that it isn’t there anymore. These scenes exemplify The Master and Freddie in particular, allowing us to have empathy if not sympathy for our protagonist.
Which brings us to the ending, just Quells and Dobbs in a well furnished room where Dodd’s finally reveals in which past life they had previously met and then serenades Freddie first gently, then forcefully. Whilst not as visceral and fierce as There Will Be Blood’s bloody finale in the bowling alley (Isn’t it unfair to compare one film to another? Tough, don’t make one of the best American studio pictures of this century then…), this proves to be just as emotional, underlining their tumultuous year or so together and at the same time solving nothing. This is as it should be, answers being too hard to obtain within this all too complex, unfulfilled relationship.
When Anderson really came to light with Boogie Nights and Magnolia, we thought we had found our new Altman, heavily influenced by Short Cuts and Nashville. Then after making a kind of musical without songs with Adam Sandler (Punch Drunk Love), he surprised everyone by delivering There Will Be Blood, a classically styled, birth of America film with hints of horror that wouldn’t have been out of place alongside Lean’s or Welle’s output. The Master continues this trend of modern throwbacks. Every frame is meticulous and some images linger (Freddie asleep on a sandcastle of a woman surrounded by whorled sand, A ship at night, lit up and drifting out to see for example.), the pace is stately and the exposition non existent. Anderson is in a field of one making films such as these.
What Anderson has achieved with The Master is merely add to and enforce his body of work detailing America as, once again, being the land of opportunity, where anything is possible but absolute power corrupts absolutely. Just that.