Don’t blink. If you do, we have to start from the beginning.
This phrase marks the first time both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix truly communicate with one another in “The Master” and possibly the last time they really get inside each other’s heads.
They’re in each other’s control, both devoting their full attention. We, as an audience, can look away no sooner.
With “The Master,” Paul Thomas Anderson has made yet another film that demands intense focus and patience. But it rewards those opening their eyes with a vividly allegorical film about the lengths of human control, one with tour de force performances, hauntingly pallid colors and towering images of stunning depth and clarity.
We meet Freddie Quell (Phoenix) languishing over his peers at the end of World War II. Sprawled out on his ship’s upper deck, he looks like the giant in “Gulliver’s Travels” surrounded by swarms of shipmates way below hurling stones to wake him. He’s arrived at this point after a night of heavy drinking, enabled by a lethal cocktail of his own fermenting. This swill will get him into trouble later when it poisons an elderly farmer.
The incident sends Freddie running and hiding as a stowaway to the cruise ship of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a man who comes to be known to Freddie only as Master. He’s a writer, philosopher, doctor, but above all a man, as he says to Freddie, but more accurately he’s the leader of a growing cult movement called The Cause.
Maybe it’s because he enjoys Freddie’s swill, but Master sees potential, bravery and room for personal growth in Freddie. He takes him into his home, enlists him as a guinea pig for The Cause, performs “processing” on him and believes that through Master’s own guidance, Freddie can be helped.
Master and The Cause are both fictional versions of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, and the accounts of the film show the religion’s initial development in the early ‘50s. And yet neither this comparison nor the actual plot of the film give a great sense of what “The Master” is really about.
More so than a nihilistic condemnation of Scientology, Anderson uses this as a setting and metaphor for themes of sexual repression and the possibility of man.
In Freddie, Anderson depicts a sexually starved man with urges that drive his inhibitions as a human. He has no trouble approaching women, be it getting them to take off their clothes on their work break, massage his leg during a group therapy session or writing on a notepad “Do you want to fuck” and earning a smile in return.
And yet he’s physically and emotionally crippled by his instincts. Watch how Freddie moves, hunched over with pants hitched up too high, palms uncomfortably poised backwards on his side and neck arching for attention. What’s more, he can think of nothing other than sex. When given a quick Rorschach blot test, he can think of nothing other than a “pussy,” “a cock going into a pussy” and “a cock.”
All of these traits exude the qualities of a wild, animalistic alpha male. It’s as though he’s an under-evolved form of Tom Cruise’s Seduce and Destroy huckster in “Magnolia.”
We see his wild instincts played out before us. Freddie’s violent outbursts are contained within a moment of distant scurrying, the camera darting along side as Freddie stumbles through a department store or sprints away from chasing farmers. And yet his choices are broken up into isolated moments of actions and consequences. We see Freddie pass an old man his homemade swill and then immediately cut to him laying poisoned. There’s no in-between because all we know is that our actions have consequences.
PTA’s latest has the same Kubrick-esque resonance as his previous film, 2007’s “There Will Be Blood.” That film was about two men competing for eminence. In “The Master,” the men competing are aiming for control on a more personal level. Who really is the master? Are we really in control of our own lives?
Such themes would not be possible were it not for the performances of Phoenix, Hoffman and Amy Adams as Master’s wife. Hoffman gives Master such range and eloquence. He is so confident and full of conviction that there would be no question of which man was in control were it not for Anderson’s careful nuances in storytelling. Adams’s calming voice has a hidden ferocity, and she even proves in a key scene that she may be the one with the power to control Master.
As for Phoenix, what rage, what intensity and what remarkable bodily control he is capable of. Watch him flail furiously in a jail cell, breaking his toilet and propelling his back into a bunk bed. He doesn’t seem to be performing, acting only on pure inhibition and momentum. This is his finest performance in a career filled with great ones.
Phoenix and Hoffman together have an electric chemistry that in their final scene displays the same kind of gravity as the final meeting between Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday, two minds competing with unspoken aggression.
One of the film’s best scenes is the processing scene I opened this review with. Master asks Freddie a series of questions and does not allow him to blink, answering without hesitation to get to the core of his psyche. Master’s questioning is so calm and assured, so it would seem as if he is hypnotizing Freddie. And yet the camera lingers on Freddie and Phoenix’s intense focus. Who is really in control of these questions and answers? Who is the one eliciting these primal emotions?
There is so much elegant ambiguity in “The Master,” and it’s because Anderson is really the master pulling everyone’s strings. He propels the intensity with an infectious and percussive score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. He photographs in 70mm and in a smaller aspect ratio closer to the old Academy format to make the whole film feel less lifelike and more fantastical and allegorical. He uses soft, unreal colors to make the whole film go by in a trance. It’s an aesthetically stunning experience.
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of our finest filmmakers today. With his six films, he’s been compared to Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and most recently Stanley Kubrick. But now with “The Master” he’s made a film that is so assuredly his that there’s no returning to those copycat comparisons.
One of the climactic scenes in “The Master” is a game on vast salt flats. “Pick a point and go to it as fast as you can.” Like Freddie driving on a motorcycle into the distance, there’s no looking back after this.