Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell. Click on the 'Play' button above to watch the trailer for The Master.
By Simon Miraudo
November 5, 2012
(Republished March 11, 2013)
Tell a friend you’re going to see the new “Scientology satire,” and they might ask questions of a couch-jumping nature. Tell them you’re going to see Joaquin Phoenix’s latest, and they might claim they’re more excited for his next David Letterman appearance. Say you’re seeing Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth movie, and expect awestruck squeals or hushed silence in reply. Or maybe you’ll just inspire eye rolls. It’s very hard for me to predict how these people will respond; after all, they’re your friends.
Nonetheless, expect a variety of responses to hot-button drama The Master; the tale of a mentally ill and violent WW2 veteran who finds temporary solace in the warm embrace of a religious movement known as “The Cause.” It’s led by the learned and charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who describes himself to restless war vet Freddie Quell (Phoenix) as simply “a man; a hopelessly inquisitive man.” As we later discover, it’s false modesty. Here’s a guy who welcomes – and no longer needs to demand – the nickname “Master,” and erupts with rage when his methods are questioned, be it by snarky sceptics or devoted followers.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd.
Dodd's entire belief system is predicated on a kind of arrogance; that humankind doesn’t belong to the animal kingdom, and that our souls carry on from one generation to the next in different corporeal forms, forever trying to fight off our disgusting impulses (it’s no coincidence that he curses one particularly testy cynic as a “pigf**k”). But throughout the picture, we see him reduced to the most animalistic of desires and outbursts. He cutely chastises Freddie - who takes it upon himself to act as Lancaster’s attack-dog/lap-dog – for being a “naughty boy,” and subjects him to a series of psychological tests that most would consider too cruel for a guinea pig. When alone with his quietly ferocious wife Peggy (Amy Adams), she exerts a farm-yard trick of her own to maintain dominance; unexpectedly grabbing and forcefully 'milking' him, while whispering her threats into his ear. It’d be a lazy generalisation to compare Peggy to Lady Macbeth, but it was hard not to think of the phrase “out damned spot!” when she wiped her hands clean after completing the deed.
The Master is burdened with “event” status on account of its filmmaker’s towering reputation, Phoenix’s return to the screen after years of (fake) erratic behaviour, the way in which the controversial subject matter scared away every Hollywood investor except art-house loving billionairess Megan Ellison, and even its select theatrical roll-out in cinemas capable of presenting the picture in glorious 70mm. I thought people only got excited about bigger screens when they had images of a glum Batman projected onto them, but it seems I underestimated the desires of cinephiles around the globe (who drove petitions for the special reels to be unspooled in their town). Hopefully this will incite a re-release of PTA’s earlier features, because I can think of one sequence at the end of Boogie Nights that could use all the extra screen-space it can get.
In the same way that Lancaster Dodd is just a man, so too is Paul Thomas Anderson, and it’s a little unfair to expect that each of his subsequent releases will change the cinematic landscape. Similarly, The Master is just a film, and it satisfies, excites, entertains, and encourages debate just as the best ones should. It can indeed be intimidating to venture into an Anderson flick for the first time, so I sympathise with those who are either fearful or overwhelmingly excited. With each new project, we witness him on a roaming exploration of storytelling styles. He asks us to view the world through the eyes of an increasingly alienating cavalcade of lead characters. And his lengthy run-times frequently break the acceptable bladder barrier. They’re experiments, orchestrated by a “hopelessly inquisitive man.” It’s a miracle, then, that in the face of all this baggage, The Master should be as exquisite as it is. Anderson may be just a man, but he’s one hell of a director, and he conducts this symphony – in which three central characters go head to head and round and round – with more skill, style, and strange instinct than anyone else could. It’s a hard task to temper a reader's wild anticipation while still raving hyperbolically in a review. I don’t expect to succeed on both counts, so I’m going to go for broke on the latter.
The comparisons between Lancaster Dodd and Scientology-founder L. Ron Hubbard are undeniable, but don’t look for mentions of Xenu anywhere, and perhaps prepare to question the tenets of your faith too. When we enter the story, with Freddie wandering onto a cruise ship populated by the religion’s couple dozen members, The Cause is barely past the embryonic stage. We see how the need for monetary donations was born, and how “processing” evolved from participants being asked to recall their past lives to simply imagining them. It’s the difference between knowledge and belief, and that’s not something strictly reserved for Scientologists.
Joaquin Phoenix – who gave the best performance of 2010 in the self-immolating mockumentary I’m Still Here – returns with a vengeance, contorting his troubled, weather-beaten face as if it were a mound of clay. With an angry sexual appetite, an aptitude for making alcohol out of paint thinner, and a ceaseless desire to keep moving lest he find himself imprisoned by his circumstances, Freddie Quell is a strange puzzle of which we only glimpse a few of the pieces, echoed by Jonny Greenwood’s elliptical, hypnotic score. In the movie’s magnificent centrepiece, Lancaster “processes” him, asking a variety of intensely personal questions which he is to answer without blinking. It’s a virtuoso moment from Phoenix, Anderson, Hoffman, and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (who captures vistas gorgeously, but is never better than when navigating the intimate sequences between the two leads). Hoffman is likewise fantastic, with a perpetual blush on his cheeks that brings to mind a tipsy Santa Claus. Adams chills as a quiet observer of her husband’s increasingly dependent bromance with Freddie, but who makes her opinion known at pivotal moments in their relationship.
It’s a kaleidoscopic power struggle, evidenced by the poster, the imagery of which reminds us of the prisons we sometimes make for ourselves, sometimes out of other people. Freddie hates cages, and is terrified by the persistent threat of being institutionalised like his insane mother. Why then does he submit to Lancaster’s cruel psychological exams that quite literally force him to march back and forth between two walls until his master tells him to stop? Maybe because the tyranny of choice and freedom can be the cruellest masters of all. As their relationship disintegrates, Lancaster asks this of Freddie: "If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world." The Master is many things, but for all the shifts in relationship dynamics, religious commentary, and animalistic allusions, it is at its most heartbreaking when detailing the trials of a returned soldier trying to fit into a world that has changed irrevocably, and probably never welcomed him in the first place. Freddie Quell is always in prison, because no matter what, he will always be Freddie Quell.
The Master is available on DVD and Blu-ray from March 13, 2013.