With an all-star cast, The Master has no trouble gathering devotees.
Elusive, impeccably controlled and, at times, alienating, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is a bold and weighty picture. I daresay it’s possible to be wowed by the film without quite grasping it, rather turning over the cryptic double meanings and curveball non sequiturs in your mind for days after the closing credits roll. There’s already a fervent cult of P.T. Anderson worshippers insisting that unless you’ve seen it twice, you haven’t seen it at all.
I’ve only seen it once, so take this however you will.
Since the movie revolves around a cult, it’s fitting that the film should inspire such fanatical devotion. Philip Seymour Hoffman costars as Lancaster Dodd, the sly, silky-voiced leader of a movement called “the Cause,” which, depending on who’s feeling litigious at the moment, may or may not be based on Scientology. There are dozens of parallels here to L. Ron Hubbard and Dianetics, but I doubt Anderson is particularly interested in them all that much. Leave the exposés to Vanity Fair and Tom Cruise’s attorneys; this is a movie about characters.
Finally returning to the screen after a bizarre, years-long public performance art stunt, Joaquin Phoenix costars as Freddie Quell. Fresh out of the Navy during America’s heady, post-WWII flush, he’s a sex-obsessed, unrepentant drunk. A chronic masturbator fashioning Kitty Dukakis cocktails out of torpedo fuel and photochemical developing fluids, Quell is slightly deranged and probably mentally handicapped. First seen dry humping a sandcastle, Phoenix has a bent posture and gnarls his face into contorted sneers. Hands held high on his hips, farting loudly and seeing every Rorschach inkblot as pornography, he’s a man reduced to pure animal impulse. (I gasped aloud when, while primping for a party, Quell nonchalantly chugs a bottle of Lysol from the medicine cabinet.)
What Dodd sees in Quell is the crux of The Master. Here is a love story between the id and the superego, except the superego might be full of crap. Dodd espouses convoluted philosophies about past lives and hidden traumas, complete with sense-memory repetition exercises he calls “processing” that bear a startling similarity to those in a freshman-year method-acting class. It’s the 1950s, and a charlatan-like Dodd is riding high on contributions from suddenly wealthy, bored housewives. But in Quell he has found the ultimate test case for his manifestos.
The title cuts several ways, and it’s telling that I don’t recall us hearing Dodd’s name until an hour or so into the picture. He just prefers to be called “Master.” In one sense, Quell is his pet, with Dodd teaching this rabid old dog new tricks, always followed by an awesomely condescending, “Good boy.”
But Dodd’s also making all this up as he goes along. As the Cause catches on across the East Coast, devotees begin to notice cracks in the dogma, which are often petulantly dismissed by their author. Hoffman was a brilliant choice for the role. He summons grandiose elegance when speaking publicly, and yet always carries with him a faint air of flop sweat. Dodd’s waiting to be found out as a fraud, and we see that part of him that secretly just wants to get loaded with Freddie and break wind.
None of this escapes Dodd’s wife, Peggy, played with dead-eyed rigor by Amy Adams. If not the brains of the Cause’s operation, she’s definitely the backbone, and she has no patience for her husband’s peculiar dalliance with this miscreant. It’s an act of amazing, counter-intuitive casting, with Adams’ Kewpie-doll cuteness undercut by scary, steely resolve. Peggy lays things out for Dodd during what might be the most terrifying hand-job in cinema history.
The tricky thing about The Master is that some of Dodd’s sham methods actually seem to work, providing a focus and purpose for Quell. He’d probably be dead in a ditch somewhere, otherwise.
Shooting on obsolete large-format film, Anderson eschews vistas, constricts the frame and relishes the enhanced resolution’s capacity for minute detail. The movie is mostly close-ups with an extremely shallow depth of field, making every twitch and blink seismically resonate. (Depressingly, The Master screened for critics on the AMC Boston Common’s rinky-dink digital system, but you can watch it in full 70mm glory at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, one of only a handful of cinemas in the country to reinstall old projectors, so their patrons can see this film as it was intended to be shown.)
The Master is confounding and troubling. The over-emotive flourishes of Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Magnolia are missing here. Much like his There Will Be Blood, this one feels like it was edited with a scalpel and might’ve landed here from another planet, with an atonal Jonny Greenwood score adding to the unease. This is an ambivalent picture, one that remains stubbornly unresolved. It’s a singular vision, and the movie haunts.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons and Laura Dern. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. At Coolidge Corner and in the suburbs.