*THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS*
They are more alike than either realizes at first, but through the course of the film we will see the cracks in each man, the first apparent, the second, not so clear at first. Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is living with a rage he cannot control, and he moves from job, losing each with an outburst of some sort, he simply becomes more angry and full of self-loathing. Lacking control of any kind, he drinks, he fights, and eventually stumbles onto a boat in a port where a wedding is about to take place. It is here that he first encounters Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), or the Master as he is known within the circle who believe his every word. Utterly in control, Dodd has written volume one of series of beliefs that have formed a religion similar to Scientology. When challenged that the beliefs of one, the unproven beliefs of one make this a cult, the cracks in his control show for the first time and he explodes in rage. Indeed, the men have more in common than either recognizes. Perhaps this is why Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) does not like Quell around, perhaps she sees in him the man her husband once was. She knows he lusts, quietly talking to him in the bathroom as she masturbates him, she is very aware of that and makes clear her disapproval, just as she makes it clear he should not partake in Quell’s homemade booze.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is a remarkable film, not perfect, but a startling character study of not one but two men who encounter one another and dance a delicate dance around one another, each discovering more and more about one another, often not liking what they find.
“He’s making this up as he goes along” says Dodd’s son, who is far more insightful than his father wishes him to be, and those words lock themselves in Quell’s mind. He begins to do the unthinkable, to question, to wonder, to challenge.
Around him are groups of people who wait for his every word, who wait for words of wisdom to spew forth from Dodd like manna from heaven. We watch at one point as he has Quell move across a room and back, over and over, depriving him of lunch, of companionship, of human contact for no real purpose, other than Dodd to watch him obey. And still his followers wait for his words. Yet listen to him long enough and he contradicts, his second book especially divides his flock, and he finds himself being questioned by more than one.
In a striking sequence police arrive at the home of a follower who has invited Dodd and his family to be her guests, and they hold a warrant for his arrest. Seems he “took” some money, more than ten thousand dollars from a charitable foundation and they want it back. Though Dodd can smile and happily go off with the police, the worry on the face of his wife shows that there have been instances like this before. There is no discussion of it at dinner later when he Dodd is out, but there is an uncomfortable silence throughout the meal. Are they afraid of bringing out Dodd’s wrath? For Quell, the arrest is devastating and he will break free of Dodd for a time.
Yet inevitably he is drawn back, the seduction too strong to resist, but will he stay? Has Dodd taken control of Quell’s soul? Has his religion, his cult, the Cause, attached itself to Quell’s already confused mind?
Joaquin Phoenix gives a performance of blinding originality in The Master, creating a character unlike anything he has ever attempted before. This is a real reach for the actor because he changes his physicality in the film, moving around with his hands on hips (backwards), his body seeming to shrink inwards, his jaw sticking out almost daring someone to punch him, and speaking out of the corners of his mouth. When he looks at someone it is with disdain for the human race, with a dislike for humanity that he simply cannot help. I think his instinct for finding someone just like him is what keeps him with Dodd, though initially Dodd is all confidence and calm, like an ocean of stillness to bring Quell the peace he so seeks. Watch the sequence where Quell is a department store photographer and his mood changes, watch the change in body, how he moves, and finally the rage that comes into his eyes. This is the sort of courageous performance that could have gone terribly wrong, yet the actor is in constant control of what he is doing, never going over the top. I overheard some critic griping about the performance, calling it mannered, too self-conscious, and that is their opinion, but I doubt they know much about the art and craft of acting. The fact Phoenix never becomes tiresome or ridiculous is what make the challenging performance the masterwork of acting it is, this with his staggering ability to make us care about Quell, sometimes a dislikable fellow. An Oscar nod for Best Actor seems all but assured, and rightly so, it’s a stunning performance of astounding power.
Blind faith in leaders can bring dire consequences. We have learned that through history with Hitler, Jim Jones and Charles Manson. I am not suggesting Dodd will go down the path of those madmen, but the zeal is there in the eyes, the madness is there when he is challenged. Polite to a fault, he is instantly vulgar when questioned about his cause, lashing out with obscenities that startle the genteel crowd gathered to listen to him talk, leading to their ejection from the home. As portrayed by Hoffman, in an equally brilliant performance Dodd is a dangerous man because of the manner he draws the damaged to him, and God help them if they wish to break away. It is as though he draws strength from controlling others, which of course all such manipulators do.
“If we are to meet in the next life, I will be your sworn enemy” he tells Quell when his pupil entertains the idea of leaving him. With eyes that burn into the soul of the person he is speaking with, Dodd is a master manipulator, but careless, leaving himself open for being brought down.
Though Amy Adams does not have as much screen time as either actor, she is superb as Dodd’s wife, gently supportive and kind in front of people but behind closed doors, blue steel in protecting her husband us his cause, which she fervently believes in. That she does not really want Quell around, throughout the film again tells me she has been through this sort of thing before, and never wishes to go backwards with Dodd. It is a powerful supporting performance that could, and should land Adams in yet another Oscar race.
Anderson as always provides some stunning images on the screen, but is his great strength with actors that make him a fine filmmaker. He seems to encourage his actors to leap off a cliff with him and he goes readily with them. I would love to have been in on the conversations that took place between he and Phoenix as they prepared to make this film. With stunning cinematography the picture is beautiful to look at, the art direction plunging us back in time to the fifties, to a simpler time.
For me the first half of the film is much stronger than the second, however that could be perhaps because we can see what is coming, and feel discomfort about how it is going to play out. Worries about the films’ attacks on Scientology are fair, but there is little in the film not already known about it. Watching the ever cheerful Dodd and his followers was something I found all too familiar in watching a certain major actor today. Bold, and brilliant, it is one of the year’s most courageous films and destined to be discussed for years to come. An American masterpiece which further confirms Anderson’s position as the most exciting director in movies today.
Oscar attention should come for the actors, Adams and Anderson, though I am not so confident about the films chances for Best Picture and Best Director wins. Is The Master to the Academy’s taste? Perhaps it is too bold, and despite critics’ awards that will come (I suspect) they may focus on the acting and writing rather than film and director. Win or lose, the film will be remembered for years to come, the greatest testament one can offer the work.
Let me start things off with a somewhat bold Oscar related prediction. ‘The Master’ has almost no chance of winning Best Picture. There’s a lot going on in the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson, and while in some ways it’s his most accessible work to date, in other ways it’s his most obtuse to date and will frustrate a lot of audience members. That dichotomy will be problematic for some and its emotional coldness will likely keep enough voters from giving it the top prize, but I hardly think that was on Anderson’s mind when crafting this odd flick. Of course, that’s not to say that it won’t be a big Oscar player or that it’s not a great film, since it’s both (and currently one of my 10 favorite of the year so far). Featuring a career best performance from Joaquin Phoenix, a terrific turn from Philip Seymour Hoffman that blurs the lines between lead and supporting, a strong yet understated job on the part of Amy Adams, and PTA’s typically strong writing and direction, this is a great character study and portrait of both masculinity and religion in post World War II America. It’s also Anderson’s most visually pleasing film to date, but more on that later. The film begins its limited release this Friday and expands in the coming weeks, so now we know that Oscar season has truly hit. This is our first surefire Best Picture nominee to hit theaters this year, though as I said above…it’s just not going to win. Also worth noting, it only has some very mild resemblances to Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard, so put that out of your mind when watching. This isn’t the sharp edged expose or biopic that some still seem to think that it is, just a character study of the highest quality.
The film opens on a shot of the ocean stirred up from a Naval vessel just out of the camera shot. It’s an image that will recur throughout the film, though the first time we then get to see our protagonist Freddie Quell (Phoenix). It’s the end of the second World War and Freddie doesn’t know what to do with himself. Mostly concerned with sex and making his own alcohol, he seems to drift (sometimes literally) through his service time, and when the war ends he begins drifting through peace time in a similar fashion. He’s the very definition of an unsettled and troubled veteran, often causing trouble wherever he goes. When he accidentally poisons an immigrant worker in California with his homemade liquor (the secret ingredient that time is paint thinner), he goes on the run. Freddie then stows away on a cruise ship almost on a whim, where he comes into contact with members of The Cause, a religious type movement founded by one Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a man of many interests. Most of his family and friends are suspicious/skeptical of Freddie, including his influential wife Peggy (Adams), but Dodd takes an immediate shine to him and considers the man a project as well as a protege of sorts. Dodd believes that his teachings can change the troubled man, even if Freddie doesn’t seem to have any interest in mending his ways and mostly just wants to try and seduce the women around him, even while becoming a disciple of The Cause. Thus begins a character study that looks at two very different people, at once both drifters and seekers, along with how one’s power over the other changes (or doesn’t change) them both. It’s a lot to bite into in one viewing, but PTA pulls it off.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone will give a better performance this year than Joaquin Phoenix does here. He absolutely deserves to win the Best Actor Oscar for the role of Freddie Quills, though I can only promise a nomination for him. Phoenix interprets this character in a way I’m not sure anyone else would have, and it pays dividends in a similar way to how Daniel Day-Lewis absolutely owned the screen for Paul Thomas Anderson the last time around in ‘There Will Be Blood’. Phoenix makes Freddie like a caged animal, while for most of the movie speaking out of the corner of his mouth as if spitting the words out at you. It’s really a performance unlike anything else this year. His opponents in the Best Actor race certainly have their work cut out for them. Also doing clearly terrific and nomination caliber work is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who captivates in his role, which is technically supporting but sometimes feels like a co-lead (some claim he’s the lead for sure, but I think it can go either way). His interpretation of Lancaster Dodd is full of small hints that betray his charismatic and confident exterior. Like Phoenix, Hoffman appears for all the world like the only person who could have played this role. He’s memorably worked with Anderson before, but I’d argue that it’s his best PTA role yet and possibly even a top 5 for his career. The odds are very strong that he’s going to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor and he could very well win the Oscar too. Amy Adams isn’t quite as showy and she fades into the background at times, but she’s excellent as well and probably in line for a Best Supporting Actress nod, though I don’t expect her to really contend for the win. Her scenes with Hoffman have a very interesting dynamic, that’s for sure. Laura Dern is good in a small part, but doesn’t really register in a major way. The other notable cast members include Jesse Plemons as Dodd’s non-believer son Val, Ambyr Childers as Dodd’s daughter Elizabeth, Rami Malek as her husband Clark, along with the likes of Kevin J. O’Connor and even the voice of Melora Walters. This is all about Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performances to me, though Amy Adams is nothing to sneeze at as well.
Paul Thomas Anderson is in fine form here, trying something new while also making a film that fits in well with his oeuvre to date. His direction has never been this razor sharp, and if it doesn’t have as many signature traits as usual, it’s perhaps his most complete behind the camera work yet (I still prefer the audacity and ambition of ‘Magnolia’ and ‘Boogie Nights’ personally, but this is close behind). Armed with a game cast willing to up their game for him, stunning cinematography from Mihai Malaimare Jr., great production design from David Crank and Jack Fist, and of course a brilliant score by Jonny Greenwood, Anderson should be very much in play for a Best Director nod. His only real directorial flaw is that he loses a bit of the pacing during the third act and can’t quite stick his landing. As for his writing, it’s a terrific script, giving a trio of strong parts for his talented actors to sink his teeth into and a few scenes that will be impossible to forget. The scene showing a question session between Phoenix and Hoffman is among the best I’ve seen all year, though a later explosion between the two in a pair of jail cells is a close second and a masterclass in acting as well. I think he’s very much a lock for a Best Original Screenplay nod, and could even win as a sort of consolation if/when the film itself comes up short. Overall, I’d expect a minimum of 8 nominations for the film, with as many as a dozen a distinct possibility.
I saw the film projected in 70mm and if you can see it like this, I highly recommend it. There’s a beauty to the images in and of themselves, but when projected in 70mm the beauty is only enhanced. The movie isn’t ruined by any stretch if you can’t see it like this, but it’s merely a bonus for those lucky enough to be near a theater complying with Paul Thomas Anderson’s wishes.
‘The Master’ is a nearly flawless work (the fact that you feel the length and the ending could be better is really the only things keeping me from a 4 star review) and one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s very best (I’m still partial to ‘Magnolia’ as his best, with ‘Boogie Nights’ #2, but this may well be #3 and rising). It’s going to be a huge Oscar player, so this is an absolute must see, if for no other reason than Joaquin Phoenix. That’s likely the performance of the year folks, and this is one of the top films of the year, so don’t you dare miss it! The movie is among the most memorable of 2012 so far and our first real Best Picture contender. I may doubt its ability to win, but there’s no doubting how terrific it is…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!