“The Master” Movie Review

     To attempt to describe Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” to a mainstream movie going audience would be an impossibility.  That’s how unique the film is as it doesn’t follow any of the conventional structure normally seen in this type of piece.  Is it a character study, like Anderson’s last work “There Will Be Blood”? Or, are we looking at something that boils down to more of an acting duel?  For certain, we are seeing a film which is likely to be debated by many and hated by others.  There’s really no in between since there isn’t  so much of a story here, but rather a collection of events that occur in a person’s life with Anderson’s camera peeking in on what he feels is important.  The film really has no beginning and no ending.  We are faced with the birth of a religion and how an insane man embraces its ideals through the teachings of its leader.

     “The Master” is said to be based loosely on the events which created Scientology, though the film makes no direct reference.  In the mid 1940s, we meet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who’s aboard a U.S. Navy ship at the end of World War II.  His introduction, as is his behavior throughout the entire film, is bizarre as we see him emptying fuel from missiles to use later for one of his many cocktails.  To go along with his talent and hobby of concocting potions out of paint thinner, Lysol, and other substances which make you feel beyond intoxication, he also fails at creating any structure in his post military life.  We see him as part of a briefing in which a superior is telling Freddie and other returning Veterans that life will be difficult as they re-enter society.  This proves to be the case as Freddie’s insane nature fails to remain caged long enough for him get through a shift as a photographer at a local mall.  Not helping his cause is his state of being is always under the influence of the potions he is now creating in the dark room for which he is supposed to be doing his job, but is instead using it as a chemistry lab.

     After several failed attempts at normal life, Freddie, in a desperate attempt to escape death at the hands of men whom he poisoned with one of his potions, stows away on a yacht which belongs to Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).  Dodd and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) are hosting the wedding of their daughter at sea and soon Freddie is discovered.  After sleeping off his latest bout with intoxication, Freddie is summoned to Dodd’s quarters, who confesses he has discovered Freddie’s latest concoction and asks if he make him more.  This begins a relationship between the two in which Dodd, as the leader of a religion he has founded called “The Cause”, recruits Freddie and welcomes him into his family.  At the point where Freddie decides he wants to join the group, Anderson deploys a powerful scene in which Dodd runs a test on Freddie called “processing” in which he asks him a series of questions over and over again.  During “processing” Freddie is not allowed to blink or the test starts over.  It is here we get our first glimpse of the powerful message Dodd is preaching and how it is being received by Freddie.  I got the idea Dodd was using his methods as a form of treatment, as if Freddie is only a test case to him.  Freddie’s fascination can be traced to a number of things, but most likely his thirst to simply belong and blend in.

     At this point in the film, all typical narrative philosophy goes out the window as Anderson simply blends a number of scenes together which trace the back word and forward nature of Freddie’s experiences with “The Cause”.  Many times, Anderson will, without notice, change the perspective from what is reality to what Freddie actually sees.  At one point, a gathering that breaks out into song is presented from Freddie’s point of view in which he stares into the room and envisions all of the women with no clothes on.  Anderson holds this point of view for an uncomfortably long time, likely to show us the depths of which Freddie’s mind has plunged.  The persona Joaquin Phoenix gives Freddie makes one wonder how close that persona is to Phoenix himself.  In other words, how much is he really acting.  In a scene in which Dodd and Freddie find themselves in neighboring jail cells, Freddie goes crazy and tears up the cell in every way imaginable, likely showing the audience that Dodd’s methods of treatment are hopeless much like Phoenix’s real life issues of the past several years.

     You have to respect Anderson’s ability to consistently write and direct features that ignore what is normal and instead explore the unexpected.  Like all of the great directors, Anderson’s films share many important traits, as its become easy to spot Anderson’s style if you’ve viewed all of his films (“Boogie Nights”, “Magnolia”).  “The Master” is no exception as the lives of its two central characters are simply laid out in front of us as they happen, even if what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily a highlight.  Sometimes in order to know a character really well, you have to present the mood as well as the actions and dialogue.  The silent moments in which we know what the character is thinking and he doesn’t have to spell it out for us.  For mainstream audiences, this may prove to be a bit much to sit through, but make no mistake, this is one of our generations most talented directors at the top of his form.  The acting from Phoenix and Hoffman is as good as you would see in the best of pictures and that goes for the cast supporting them as well.  “The Master” is a unique combination of territory yet to be explored, tension, dialogue, and character study which succeeds in what it sets out to do.  It’s not the overall package which would make it one of the year’s best films, yet it seems to stand alone in a class by itself.  GRADE: B+