As the credits rolled and the lights of the sparsely populated theater came up, a wave of indifference crashed over me. I was pretty certain I loved what I had just witnessed, but why? And quite frankly, what had I just witnessed?
This wasn’t an experience like watching “Enter The Void” or “Dogtooth” where I was left pondering the very bizarreness of it all, but with Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to “There Will Be Blood”, I walked away feeling I didn’t quite understand the characters or the journeys they had taken. This was the frustrating yet beautiful thing about “The Master” – the minute I stepped outside the theater, I wanted to turn right back around and watch it all over again. Like a locomotive charging full-steam ahead, “The Master” is an exhilarating piece of cinema that doesn’t sweetly coddle its audience, and is defined by its complex characters and dynamic performances.
You’ve probably heard the film referred to as “that Scientology movie” or seen the headlines about how “outraged” Tom Cruise was upon watching it. If you come in expecting some controversial account of how Scientology came to be, you’ll most likely be disappointed. While Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his “Cause” may bear some resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, Anderson merely uses the bare threads to weave a more intricate examination of the nature of belief and the dynamic between two distinctive yet simpatico individuals.
Over the course of the film, we are presented with two alternate definitions of a “master.” In a more traditional sense, there’s Dodd, who has written a system of beliefs that he refers to as “The Cause.” With his obedient wife (Amy Adams) and inherent charisma, Dodd draws a loyal following of supporters who eat up his every word. As the story progresses, we are given the sense that Dodd’s disciples believe in his teachings more than he does, and his rare outbursts when confronted with doubt are explosive yet disparaging.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), on the other hand, sees himself as his own master – someone that cannot be controlled or defined; that is free to come and go as he pleases with no repercussions for his actions. An emotionally crippled World War II vet with an institutionalized mother, Freddie drowns in a whirlpool of heartbreak and instant gratification, whether that means fondling a pair of sand-molded breasts on the beach or mixing hard liquor with paint thinner. Quell and Dodd may be the unlikeliest of matches, but when their paths finally cross, their stimulating tête-à-tête and perplexing rapport make for one of the most fascinating duos to hit the silver screen in ages.
As expected, Hoffman and Phoenix are absolute dynamite as their respective characters, with each one’s performance all but mirroring the brilliance of the other (although when awards season rolls around, I would give a slight edge to Hoffman). With wild eyes and an incoherent stammer, Phoenix fires on all cylinders as Freddie: creating an unpredictable, detached individual that is more enigmatic than sympathetic. Hoffman brings a likable, composed aura to Dodd, whose even most capricious ideas I found myself enchanted with due to his power of persuasion.
As the austere yet loyal Peggy Dodd, Adams is outstanding in her far-too-brief time on screen. Had she been given a couple juicier scenes to work with, we could have easily seen her make a walk up to the podium on Oscar night, instead of settling for a “Best Supporting Actress” nomination, as she will most likely do.
An even more unfortunate omission will likely fall upon Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who has created a hypnotic and unsettling score that is consistent with the film’s nostalgic view of the 1950s and the tension underlying Dodd’s cult-like sensibilities. Mihai Malaimare Jr. has the greatest shot at technical accolades for his impeccable cinematography, which creates a vivid fever dream where every shot is expertly calculated and richer than the one before it.
It is difficult to identify any real “problems” with the film without a second or third viewing, because I feel that anything I found issue with probably just requires a closer examination. Dodd and Quell have a fascinating, larger-than-life relationship, which is not so much a father and “prodigal son” dynamic, but one with heavy, underlying erotic tones, as Anderson noted while speaking at the Venice Film Festival this month. While these characters were intriguing, I had a difficult time comprehending how they developed or what sort of character arc they might have undergone from Point A to Point B.
Particularly in the case of Quell: He is all lust and rage, but there is no “breakthrough” moment where the audience feels we can better understand him, and he remains very much the same in the end as he was in the beginning. And while the conclusion is satisfying, to a degree, I still couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed. Unlike “There Will Be Blood”, there is no “I drink your milkshake!”-moment to astound the audience. “The Master” is not as much about an ultimate, gripping pay-off as it is about the journey to reach that destination.
“The Master” is not for everybody, and many film aficionados know that, but still prefer to belittle those that just don’t “get” this movie. You are not “unsophisticated” or “unable to appreciate good film” if you don’t think this is the next American masterpiece, but that is by no means an excuse not to give it a try. Quite frankly, my initial reaction to “The Master” was lukewarm, but after sitting on it for a number of days, I am continually bewildered by it and plan to give it another chance. And isn’t that all you can really expect from a filmgoer: an open mind and a willingness to be challenged?
If you’re the type that waits to see all the awards-bait movies until the Oscar nominations are announced in January, you might as well just get this one out of the way now, because it’s sure to be raking in the accolades this winter – for good reason, too. “The Master” is a character study in the truest sense of the phrase that is likely not the very best movie we will see in 2012, but one that I will surely be revisiting in weeks, months and years to come.