‘The Master’: Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman Convert Audiences to 'The Cause' in P.T. Anderson's Stunning New Film (MOVIE REVIEW)
“A force of nature” is a description thrown around freely -- and reductively -- by performances and films that are big, over the top and out of control, but there’s something truly elemental about the relationship between Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s characters in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.
As the id and superego in eternal conflict, the irrepressibly primal beast and the trainer who loves its wildness as desperately as he wants to tame it, Phoenix’s Freddie Quell and Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd form a perfect circle of visceral and philosophical energies. And it’s this febrile, unpredictable conflict which makes The Master such a remarkable, ferocious experience, not just one of the best films of the year, but a singular achievement that doesn’t just earn its divisiveness but outright demands it.
What exactly is 'The Master' about?
In 1950, Phoenix’s Quell is a restless Navy seaman with an aptitude for creating unique, often dangerous cocktails out of random household substances – say, flash powder, paint thinner and the dregs of a bottle of gin that comes complete with its own hangover. Hoffman’s Dodd is “The Master,” the leader of a, yes, Scientology-like organization whose wife Peggy (Amy Adams) vents the passion and outrage that he suppresses as a tenet of “The Cause.”
When happenstance throws the two men together on a long boat trip to New York, an unexpected friendship develops. But the two men’s opposing natures soon challenges their almost subconscious bond as Dodd advances his cultlike philosophy and Quell attempts to find his place within it.
Although countless superlatives can and deserve to be heaped on Anderson’s latest, perhaps the most important is unpredictable. When every other film seems so perfunctory, so expected, anything different is welcome, but in the case of The Master there’s not a single moment that pays off in a familiar way, or feels like it can be anticipated.
As one scene gives way to the next, beginnings and endings approach and retreat, and conventional arcs deteriorate. Complemented by Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood’s alternately dreamy and punctuative score, emotional arpeggios dissolve into discordant interludes, and the audience is left to determine the tone of each scene according to their interpretation of events, and their sympathies to those involved.
Although (as mentioned above) Scientology is a convenient and not inaccurate point of reference for Dodd’s “Cause,” it’s virtually irrelevant in the face of his relationship with Quell. Dodd is a man who seeks order, clarity, understanding and above all else control – of himself, others and the world around him. Quell, by comparison, is an animal who prizes freedom above all else, and even the pretense of being domesticated or repressed is met – subconsciously – with physical and emotional revolt.
Phoenix’s performance is revelatory. His posture gnarled up like a wiry question mark, the actor sleekly prowls through the affluence and respectability of his counterpart’s world. But Anderson cleverly sometimes makes him the question and other times the answer, and Phoenix’s purity of expression – an unhinged, raw and indelible articulation of base desire – is at once pitiable and terrifying, but palpably recognizable, even as it’s coming from a place that seems beyond the consciousness of an actor who’s fully submerged in his role.
Hoffman has a magnificent gift for theatricality that never loses believability, and that’s precisely what Dodd needs to be a convincing philosophical figurehead. His actorly seriousness augments the character’s showmanship, but playing a self-described “hopelessly inquisitive man” who has looked via Quell into the abyss of his own soul and seen the black primal nothingness of his most rudimentary impulses, Hoffman finds emotional truth in Dodd’s intellectual dishonesty.
The polarity of the two central characters is only strengthened by the qualities each shares with the other – Dodd’s loss of composure, not to mention the ugly expression of his temper, and Quell’s purely intuitive and yet fully measured construction of the “potions” he creates to deal with the noise of the civilized world.
Dodd is a man whose vision can’t bear the weight of its own ambition; Quell can’t countenance the betrayal of his beliefs, but also can’t escape his nature. As Quell seems to capitulate to another member of The Cause’s criticisms of a new book by beating his disappointment out of the poor man, Dodd pecks away at chinks in his own armor and then lashes out at a follower trying to fill them in with her faith.
Much has rightly been made of Anderson’s decision to shoot the film in 65mm and exhibit it (where possible) in 70mm, but it’s less important what format he used than how he used it. The pure, intuitive elegance of his images is invigorating to look at even when it’s not moving: like Stanley Kubrick, Anderson favors one-point perspective and a sort of stylized simplicity, both of which are as disorienting and confrontational as they are immersive.
It creates a sense of uncertainty and even danger that feels unlike any other movie in recent memory. The length of shots, and the perspectives from which they’re aimed, suggest tragedies and triumphs that either come at unexpected moments or not at all, making the story feel like two lives observed, not to be too grandiose about it. Even with all of Anderson’s musical and cinematographic accouterments, the performances and the narrative structure feels completely unaffected by the demands of conventional storytelling.
And so, with the combination of this and his 2007 film There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson has become not just ‘a’ but perhaps the quintessential American filmmaker. His celebration and skepticism of his characters’ ideals embody the foundations of American culture – individualism, self-determination, cooperation, compassion, selfishness, leadership and servitude, commingling in healthy and sometimes not so healthy ways. Flag-waving proclamations would be superfluous; it feels as if Anderson has unearthed the soul of a nation, expressed through undeniable humanity.
How that idea resonates with audiences – even those who admire Anderson’s work – feels oddly irrelevant, since The Master is itself a commanding force that razes expectations and defies conventional understanding. And after two viewings from this critic, the film still remains a mystery that feels less like it needs to be solved than accepted.
That, after all, is what drives Quell: because he can’t control – much less understand -- himself any better than anyone else might, the only thing left for him to do -- and demand from others -- is to embrace those roiling contradictions and complexities. Whether you question it or simply accept it, what makes The Master quite so amazing is that it’s the first film in a long time that there’s only more and more about it to uncover.