“You’ll be my guinea pig and protégée”
There really is no one making movies quite like Paul Thomas Anderson these days. Between cultivating an environment to conjure some of the best performances we’ve seen the past fifteen years, the challenging subject matter delving into the human soul, and the starkly beautiful cinematography able to transport us back in time or into a fairy tale world just on the other side of reality, his film releases have become major events with both arthouse and mainstream theatre patrons clamoring for tickets. The work isn’t always perfect—or may not appear so without subsequent viewings if it is—but even the biggest detractor cannot deny the level of expertise and precision taken in each frame. His characters are colorfully vibrant and fiercely self-assured in larger-than-life projections that will captivate, inspire, and destroy you at the same time.
Set in a post-World War II America, The Master brings us a tale about vulnerability and those willing to feed off it; of mental instability and how mankind’s perceptions can take two men equally wound up and egomaniacal and sanction one as a prophet while the other a fallen soul. In times of uncertainty, people floating adrift reach out to latch onto something to help show them the way. We look for a community to join and a leader with which to follow and tell us our next move. Lost in a world ravaged by the horrors of the Holocaust from a far, Pearl Harbor at home, and the thousands dead to ensure our freedom, peace becomes a hard concept to accept when war had been such an indelible part of our lives. It was the perfect time for men like Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to strike.
But Anderson isn’t interested in overtly telling us the tale of this scientist/philosopher/writer/man or his religion The Cause or L. Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology for which it is based. No, he knows we are aware of powerful men enlisting the fragile to join them. We understand how cults work and their inability to engage in constructive discourse or defend themselves when questioned about their validity. It therefore becomes the film’s aim to tell the tale of a troubled naval veteran returned home without purpose, normalcy, or a future. Aimlessly walking through a quiet country devoid of the deafening sound, the death, and the fight of where he had just been, this drunkard needing compassion and trust finds his way into the arms of devil. A devil able to help calm his mind and give a sense of belonging, but a devil just the same.
For Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), The Cause is a chance to be part of something big again—a movement sweeping the nation and saving humanity from itself. These are concepts he knows from the Navy; it’s a life bigger than the isolation and fear of failure that has been trapping him inside of himself like a powder keg ready to blow. Not only is Dodd taking Freddie in to perform a series of processing exercises that may heal him of harmful indoctrinations from previous lives, but the Master is also giving him the chance to replace a skeptical son (Jesse Plemons) by his side. Malleable, emotional, and loyal to a fault, Freddie finds himself falling into the black hole of empty promises and halfcocked ideologies, loving the fact he once more has a specific cause and an easily identifiable enemy.
Anderson infuses this brave new world with the devout (Laura Dern‘s glazed-eyed follower), the unsure (Quell), and the antagonizing force looking to shut Dodd’s machine down (the Philadelphia police for one). We have the matriarchal figure so invested in the religion that she will look past her husband and leader’s indiscretions (Amy Adams‘ Peggy) and the mindless children unable to delineate between love of a father and that of a book (Ambyr Childers‘ Elizabeth and her newlywed beau Rami Malek‘s Clark). These characters help flesh out this world created by Dodd’s hypnotizing words and actions, bringing its farcical nature to earth much like the science fiction pulp novelist Hubbard did in real life. His followers aren’t mentally imbalanced or unable to survive in this world. They are regular people with faith and the desire to give it to a man possessed with flowery rhetoric.
And that’s what makes Phoenix’s Freddie the perfect man to infiltrate and uncover the secretive life of this cult for us. He is the prime candidate for recruitment and yet behind his need for inclusion rests skepticism he can’t quite articulate at first. A lemming copying whomever crossed his path last, he is constantly watching how to behave because involvement is better than the solitude he’s known too long. Afraid to go home and rekindle a relationship with the girl he thought his future would contain, working alongside Dodd becomes more gratifying than odd jobs difficult to keep for longer than his temper allows. An animal at heart with a short fuse only exacerbated by the homemade moonshine he concocts out of paint thinner and other poisonous liquids, Freddie’s salvation is in Dodd’s hands.
Both Phoenix and Hoffman give powerhouse performances that may have you forgetting how flawlessly constructed the plot is at their back. Monsters hiding behind fabricated smiles with intense vitriol for all who dare refute them, one retreats clouds his mind with the bottle while the other uses his ego despite the gradually failing faith of his constituents. They build lofty ideals and implode when not met, following diverging paths to the unknown that no longer possess the means to cross. Pair them with technical astonishments (a wonderful pan behind Phoenix as he walks to a pier with Hoffman and Adams seen dancing on a boat in the distance) and head-scratching boldness (a delusion of naked women singing and dancing through Quell’s eyes) and The Master truly becomes a daring feat that may even surpass the director’s last, There Will Be Blood.
courtesy of The Weinstein Company