There is a scene in the latter half of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film The Master, where the titular spiritual leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) leads his new protégé Freddie Quell to the middle of the Arizona desert for a game he calls “drive to the point.” One person gets on the motorcycle, chooses a distant point on the horizon, and drives toward it at full speed. Dodd goes first, choosing an arbitrary point and turning around before he gets too far; never letting the motorcycle go fast enough to muss up his hair. Then it’s Freddie’s turn. When Freddie starts driving it is clear that his “point” is not random, and he drives with a fierce determination as if there is some secret truth waiting for him at his destination. Eventually Lancaster has to walk across the desert to catch up to him.
This gorgeously shot 10-minute scene manages to provide pages of character detail while simultaneously encapsulating one of the major themes of The Master, or “The Point” if you will. When faced with a search for meaning there are those of us who never fully engage out of vanity or fear and there are others who disregard safety and drive straight forward without a fleeting glance to the side. This film is about challenging the audience to identify with one of the two ideologies: when it comes to a search for truth, are we all talk, or are we willing to fully immerse ourselves in the madness required to find meaning?
The Master is all about finding meaning and Paul Thomas Anderson aids us in our search by making every beat seem significant. He likes to let the camera linger on his characters for a few moments longer than is comfortable, forcing us to peel back another layer into their psyche. Shot in 65mm (unfortunately in Minneapolis it’s only being screened in 35mm), Anderson and cinematographer Mahai Malaimare Jr. use fluid camera movements to gradually bring us closer to the people on screen as the score from Johnny Greenwood ticks along like a timer foreshadowing an impending explosion. That visual poetry combined with career-defining performances from Phoenix, Hoffman, and Adams makes The Master an easy contender for best film of the year.
Anderson follows his intense character studies in Punch Drunk Love and There Will be Blood with a similarly structured narrative in The Master, with the addition of a second point of view character. The first we meet is the horny World War II Navy veteran Freddie Quell who has a hobby of creating moonshine out of various household liquids like paint thinner and gasoline. Freddie’s irrepressible sexual urges lead to an uncomfortable confrontation with a sand-sculpture that instantly isolates him from the rest of the Navy. When his ship returns to land, Freddie attempts to adapt to civilian life by working as a photographer at a department store. Once again his animalistic nature forces him off the job and sets him wandering in a drunken stupor across the country.
In a mishap that might be deemed fate, Freddie stumbles onto the vessel where spiritual leader Lancaster Dodd, referred to by his followers as “Master,” is holding the wedding for his daughter. Dodd’s affinity for Freddie’s alcoholic concoctions makes them quick friends and the relationship strengthens when Dodd sees opportunity to practice his methods on the occasionally unhinged seaman. Dodd is the founder of a religious organization referred to as “The Cause,” which appears to be a mix of Scientology (psychological disorders are the result of events in past lives) and the Meisner Technique (repetition leads to truth). Explaining the doctrine of The Cause is not Anderson’s purpose, however, as he is far more interested in the relationship between Master and Freddie.
Referring to Freddie as his “guinea pig” and patronizingly calling him “naughty boy,” Dodd at first assumes a paternal role in Freddie’s life and before long, he introduces Freddie to guests before his own children. We learn through flashbacks that Freddie is still in love with a young girl who wrote him letters while he was enlisted. Dodd makes it one of his goals to “cure” Freddie of this obsession, which he believes is the source for much of his anger. Ultimately he succeeds in only transferring Freddie’s love from the girl onto himself, making for one of the most intriguing male love stories in recent cinema.
Sex makes a triumphant return to Anderson’s filmography after being left out (at least explicitly) of There Will be Blood. During a Rorschach test, Freddie only sees genitalia, and he pursues this single-minded sexual obsession by imagining all the women at a party naked or passing brilliantly subtle notes reading “Do you want to fuck?” Contrasting Freddie is Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) who treats sex as a chore – methodically instructing her husband to ejaculate during one encounter. Master is torn between the two and his own sexual frustration manifests in his excessive drinking and increasing affection towards Freddie.
Phoenix is triumphant and hardly recognizable in his first feature film since his faux-retirement a few years ago. He mumbles through his dialogue with his mouth twisted and his torso protruding like something is destroying him from the inside. His best moments come when he is saying nothing, like his first question and answer session with Dodd where Freddie squirms in his chair while the camera lingers on his agonized face. This is really Freddie’s story and Phoenix’s performance shows us that despite all of the analysis and character study that is explicitly taking place, we will never know who this man truly is.
Hoffman and Adams are similarly exquisite as two people who are putting on a show for the public. Like other cinematic figures of prominence (Charles Foster Kane comes to mind), Lancaster Dodd desires to be loved more than anything else and Hoffman nails the showmanship that the role requires. Peggy Dodd is much colder and Adams gives her an icy stare that is only slightly masked by her phony smile.
At one point Dodd’s son (Jesse Plemons) accuses The Master of “making it up as he goes along,” and the film’s cinematography certainly backs up that statement. In several establishing shots the camera fluidly moves around each set with no clear destination, keeping the audience guessing where it will stop. The implication is that there is no correct side for the viewer to take in each of the film’s conflicts. It is up to us to determine if we will keep the truth at arm’s length, hiding behind prose and rhetoric like Dodd, or if we will dive in and completely immerse ourselves for better or for worse, like Freddie.
The Master is the type of film that begs for repeated viewings and will undoubtedly incite discussion beyond 2012. I cannot wait to discover it all over again when it returns to cinemas for 20, 30, and 40 year anniversary screenings in glorious 70 milimeters.
Bottom Line: The Master is a thoughtful meditation on truth that challenges the audience to take sides.