The Subtle Mastery of 'The Master'

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Paul Thomas Anderson's latest may lack the visceral intensity of There Will Be Blood, but it is the fluid, evocative work of a filmmaker in his prime.

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The Weinstein Company

The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson's elegant, evocative, and enigmatic new film, opens with a shot of deep blue waters churning into egg-white foam. A flood-swollen river, perhaps? The spumed base of some remote falls? When the shot recurs later in the film, we will discover it to be of the wake of a ship--two different ships, in fact, at two moments in time. But the meaning of the image will long since have become clear: volatility and flux, rootlessness and unrest.

In short order we are introduced to the human embodiment of these traits, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a Navy seaman in the Pacific theater during the closing days of World War II. We watch Freddie, prematurely creased and frayed, as he siphons shots of rocket fuel to allay his alcoholism; we watch as he feigns copulation with the sand sculpture of a naked woman his shipmates have carved into the beach, then follows up his performance by masturbating into the surf.

These compulsions, carnal and pharmacological, continue to define Freddie after war's end. Plagued by PTSD, he is presented with Rorschach blots: "a pussy," he responds, "a cock going into a pussy," "a cock, but upside down." When he takes a job as a department store portrait-taker, he screws a shop-girl in the darkroom and mixes himself cocktails from his photographic chemicals. Fired from the job for drunkenly assaulting a customer, he finds work as a cabbage picker, where his ever-more-toxic intoxicants almost kill a fellow laborer. Desperate, half-conscious, he clambers one night onto a party yacht about to weigh anchor.

The vessel belongs to—or, as we later learn, is being borrowed by—Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a genial if self-serious walrus of a man who humbly allows that he is "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher." Dodd, who throughout the film is referred to almost exclusively as "master," is the leader of a small but ardent creed called the Cause, the tenets of which are one part science, two parts mysticism, and three parts Edgar Rice Burroughs. (Dodd and the Cause are based on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology in ways that are telegraphically evident though, one assumes, not legally actionable.)

Dodd finds himself fascinated by his visibly imploding stowaway. "You'll be my guinea pig and protégé," he tells Freddie—an ironic choice of words given that the Cause (like Scientology) is adamant that "man is not an animal." Freddie undergoes psychological "processing" (read: "auditing") to unearth past trauma and, like a prodigal son, moves in with Dodd and his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). The two men become inseparable, even sharing adjacent cells when they are both arrested—Dodd for fraud, Freddie for assaulting the officers sent to carry out the warrant. The scene of the two in jail is an immaculate juxtaposition, Dodd standing by placidly as Freddie gnaws at his mattress and kicks his toilet into porcelain splinters.

Its unbalanced title notwithstanding, The Master is a film of such dualities, in which Anderson commits more fully to the themes with which he toyed intermittently in the characters of Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood. Freddie is the wild expression of Dodd's measured will, his pet and his patient, follower and foil. Yet this neat polarity is just as neatly undermined: Freddie craves the yoke even as he casts it off; Dodd's fetish for self-composure belies a temper only marginally less combustible than Freddie's.

Addiction and obsession are by nature repetitive, and 'The Master' accordingly feels caught in a feedback loop.

In its craftsmanship and nuance, The Master bears the all the self-assurance Anderson has shown since he exploded into cinematic prominence with Boogie Nights at age 27. Like that film, like Magnolia, like There Will Be Blood, Anderson's latest is at once expansive and intimate, an exploration of an era—the vast yet uncertain promises of the early postwar years—and an exercise in meticulous portraiture. The period details (production design by David Crank and Jack Fisk, costumes by Mark Bridges) are dreamlike yet exact; the score, by Jonny Greenwood, mesmerizing; and Mihai Malaimare's cinematography, shot in lush 70mm, vibrant and seductive.

Worthy performances in his past notwithstanding, Phoenix is a minor revelation as Freddie, an animal caged in human flesh—or alternatively, as the Cause would have it, a pure soul poisoned by a million years of accumulated trauma. Hoffman (whose performance in Magnolia may have been the most underrated of his career) makes for a magnificent mountebank, his belief stretched a mile wide and an inch deep. ("He's making all this up as he goes along," Dodd's son, expertly played by Jesse Plemons, explains to Freddie.) And Adams, as the latest in Dodd's series of wives, is unerring as the steel beneath his velvet, the firm, genuine fervor undergirding his ego and hucksterism. Characteristically wonderful, too, is Laura Dern, in a smaller role as one of Dodd's acolyte/benefactors.

For all its virtues, though, The Master lacks the searing intensity of There Will Be Blood and the scope and ambition (not always fully realized) of Magnolia. Once Dodd and Freddie have assumed their complementary roles, the film becomes, to some degree, an iterative exercise, variations on a theme. The two dancers, gifted and subtly choreographed, advance and retreat in tempo: id and superego, yin and yang, annihilating chaos and a pretense of order. Where There Will Be Blood transmuted sullen earth into flame and launched it violently skyward, The Master is, as its opening shot advertises, a more fluid undertaking, a story of ebb and flow.

If this structure is at times a disappointment, it would be wrong to label it a flaw. Addiction and obsession are by nature repetitive, and if The Master at times feels caught in a feedback loop, it is by no means clear that the cycles are unintended. In this the film resembles Freddie himself, the inevitable recidivist, who is at one point commanded to spend days (weeks?) marching back and forth across an ordinary living room, alternately touching wall and window, seeking an epiphanic release that will never arrive. Anderson's film is more meditative than analytic in its mood and purposes, but if it has a lesson to offer it is perhaps this: that constant motion is itself a kind of stasis, the last trap of a wandering soul, the endless wake of a boat to nowhere.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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