Movie Review: The Master
The Charlotte Observer
Paul Thomas Anderson makes movies about broken men. They may be punch-drunk with love or boiling with rage or addled by greed, but all have been knocked off course and struggle with varying success toward self-awareness and happiness.
None has so far to go as Freddie Quell in “The Master.” Fate assigned him an alcoholic father and a mother headed for an asylum. World War II may have left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. Our first glimpse is of a lonely man: As other sailors romp and wrestle on a beach in anticipation of victory over Japan, Quell sits by himself, stonily hacking at a coconut.
His last name means “to suppress or extinguish,” and Freddy’s internal light is all but quelled when he stumbles onto a yacht in the middle of a party held by Lancaster Dodd. The older man takes a shine to this misfit and keeps him aboard as a project: Dodd runs The Cause, an organization that helps people overcome mental disorders – and, he claims, diseases as serious as leukemia – by having them remember past lives and addressing the psychological roots of long-buried illnesses.
You can see why Scientologists are angry: Founder L. Ron Hubbard premiered the self-help system Dianetics in May 1950, and it resembles the one in this film. (Dodd holds a universal conference in May 1950 to announce a change in his philosophy.)
But Anderson, who wrote and directed, is not gunning for the heads of particular religious or cult leaders. He’s showing the pathetic relationship between a man who may be irredeemably lost and a man who can’t believe there are sick people he can’t help. (Dodd may be a fool, but he doesn’t seem to be a fraud.)
Joaquin Phoenix utterly transforms himself as self-destructive Freddy, who drinks cocktails with ingredients such as paint thinner or photo-developing fluid. He walks like a sailor, with a rolling gait and arms tensed for action. His furrowed brow and jutting jaw make him seem one step below Homo sapiens; he’s a baffled creature trying to elevate himself to humanity.
We can see that he’s drowning psychologically. So can Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams), who tries to throw him a lifeline without much hope.
Only Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) keeps working on him. The movie hints that he may regard Freddie as a surrogate son – Dodd’s own boy scornfully profits by his dad – or some kind of unconsummated sex object. (The movie’s hints of homoeroticism begin with those nearly naked, wrestling sailors.) But mostly Freddy is a challenge to The Master, who can’t seem to free his willing slave.
We watch most of this film from Freddy’s point of view. So the key to understanding it may be separating his reality from his visions, but Anderson makes that difficult.
A miraculous phone call near the end is clearly a fantasy, but it throws into doubt all the things Freddy has told us. He clearly had a crush on a 16-year-old girl in Massachusetts before he enlisted, but did she respond as he remembers? When we see Dodd as a lecher through Freddy’s eyes, how much can we believe?
Like Phoenix, everyone involved does his best work. Hoffman is unctuous yet sincere, thin-skinned and careless with people’s money yet genuinely anxious on Freddy’s behalf. Adams can be placidly maternal or pleasantly icy. Laura Dern nails her small part as Dodd’s rich, confused Philadelphia backer.
I don’t ever need to hear Jonny Greenwood’s score apart from the picture, but its branch-scratching-a-window quality suits the tone. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare shot in 65 mm to achieve a beauty few films have today, which makes “The Master” even sadder: This lovely world is not made for Freddy. (Few non-action films these days really need to be seen in theaters. This is one of them.)
Anderson tells this story slowly, inexorably, with a sense of control I’ve never felt from him before. This is the least violent of his five dramas, the first where nobody dies. It’s also the bleakest: His other troubled characters cause their own misery, but Freddy was dealt a deck full of deuces from childhood. We can feel pity for him or curiosity about his would-be savior, but we know that life (and Anderson) will not be kind.