REVIEW: Phoenix, Hoffman Achieve Greatness While Doing Spiritual Battle In Marvelous The Master
The Master, the new film from Paul Thomas Anderson, is the story of a spiritual duel — the battle for a soul — though only one of the participants perceives it as such. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the mystic of the title, is the leader of a young movement not unlike what evolved into a certain real life one well entrenched in the entertainment industry. It's 1950, and he finds a stowaway on his ship, a drunk vagabond who claims to be an able-bodied seaman and who asks for work. The man's name is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), he fought in the war, and he's not mentally stable, either because of his experiences in battle or because stability was just never meant for him.
Lancaster, who is almost never referred to by his name but instead is called, simply, "master," is intrigued by Freddie, likes him (to the bewilderment of others in his camp) and desires to work with him — wants to shape him using the force of will and ability to find the vulnerability in people that he's slowly honing as his cause grows.
Freddie is both terribly vulnerable and the ultimate challenge, because he's a man with no ability to conform at will, one for whom all emotion and impulses run hot and right at the surface. If Freddie could be won over, changed and molded into someone new by Lancaster's lectures and lessons, his "processing," then the cause could be something real, and not just new age blatherings about past lives to wealthy socialites.
What makes The Master such a singular experience, as dense as a mille-feuille, is that it is not Lancaster's story but Freddie's, and told as such, in layers that are sensorially rich but that do not always lead easily from one to another. Freddie exists in the moment, ruled by his temper, his libido, or urges he would be unable to pin down or articulate. At one point he wanders away for reasons unclear — restlessness, maybe — and years slip by without his seeming to register them. He loves but has left behind a girl, Doris (Madisen Beaty), though he doesn't know why, longs to be with her and understands that he's hurt her but doesn't return. He has a good job in a department store until with no provocation one day he picks a fight with a client. He is a force of chaos, though it's not malevolent.
We see things as Freddie does, which is often the way a child does: Not fully understood, attention wandering after a while. We have more understanding than him, but it is almost exclusively through his eyes that we perceive the world, and we're left to assemble the pieces we're given into a whole that will never be fully coherent. There are only two scenes, by my count, in which Freddie is not present. Both show the ways in which other people, including Lancaster's steely wife Peggy (Amy Adams), attempt to manipulate Lancaster the way he manages others, with rewards and slippery words. Lancaster is a man who is all performance, even, one would guess, when alone, while Freddie can only be himself.
The Master is built around two towering, career-high feats of acting. As Lancaster, Philip Seymour Hoffman is both authoritative and ridiculous, a series of shells with nothing inside. He's not yet perfected the religion he's building, and is still in the process of convincing himself of his sway over others, marveling in the way that he can tell people things and they will, frequently, be believed. We see the power in him when he processes Freddie in an early scene, demanding from the younger man that he not blink as he offers up answers about his past and himself, pulling from him capitulation even as Freddie is hopelessly moved by the intensity of his attention. Few things, we understand from what we've seen already, before Lancaster ever arrived on the scene, leave a mark on Freddie, but this moment does. This moment, he'll remember.
As Freddie, Joaquin Phoenix is entirely transformed — it's a magnificent performance of remarkable physicality. "Naughty boy," Lancaster calls him, reprovingly. "Silly animal." Freddie is both of these things, a primitive, tending to swing his loose arms like an ape, his shoulders slumped, muttering out of one side of his mouth like he was crumpled into a ball once and never fully straightened out. He's half-feral in a way that can be frightening, especially in a scene in which he loses control in a prison cell, raging, destroying everything within reach and hurting himself while Lancaster poses, still, in the cell next to him. But that coiled energy, that unrestrained carnality, is also appealing, and women are drawn to him (though they may not stay that way) — lucky for him, because baldly propositioning them is his main approach.
With very fine cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. and a textured, spiky score by Jonny Greenwood that chases the film along as much as the dialogue, The Master is a more opaque sibling to There Will Be Blood, a story that, like that earlier one, feels like an abstract American creation myth, a celluloid koan to be turned over in the mind. A final encounter between Lancaster and Freddie is sparked by a dream that signals that the former does have a hook in our strange protagonist, if not the ownership he desires, and that sends Freddie over the churning blue seas, images of which punctuate the film, to find his teacher. Lancaster, grown in power and yet more hollow than ever, offers up what may be the key to the film to his wayward ward: "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." In Freddie, terrible and free, is an image of a life unbounded by rules and unmarked by submission to any structure, whether it be an abstract figure or the one ensconced in his self-created institute, promising a cure for what ails you.