Paul Thomas Anderson opens up The Master with the shot of a disrupted body of water. With us slowly hovering above the Earth’s piercing blue abyss, we get the sense that the ripples emanated from an iron beast. Regardless of their creation, the shifts and swirls give birth to a nauseating feeling. Sea sickness isn’t PTA’s intention. No. Rather he wants us to feel the bubbling angst and distraught found in Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a raging alcoholic that finds himself in the world’s greatest war. Emotionally compressed and yearning for the sensual touch of a woman, a notion demonstrated by the sexual desecration of a woman built from sand and excess time, Freddie vehemently concocts alcoholic potions from the Pacific Theater’s various resources (e.g. fruit and torpedo fuel). Whether it’s making hooch from poisonous materials or masturbating ferociously into the ocean, Freddie’s behavior is animalistic and gluttonous. He simply can’t control himself. Now, imagine how hard it is for Freddie when the war ends and he has to slip back into a postwar life. His first job as a department store photographer begins well, but quickly sours as he makes alcoholic elixirs and engages in sexual activities while on break. Feeling constricted, almost as if he was a wild ape placed in a zoo, Freddie violently assaults a customer and succumbs to his rigid nature.
Freddie’s behavior shifts him to a field of cabbage where, once again, the structure of his workplace becomes too much for him to handle, and his penchant for drinking on the job never waivers. Unfortunately, his interest in making hooch from dangerous chemicals leads to an accident that forces him to go on the run. As chance would have it, Freddie’s drunken drift leads him to a jubilant boat led by an enigmatic man named Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Once on the boat, Freddie willingly subjects himself to Lancaster Dodd’s intense following called “The Cause”. Using forms of hypnosis and suggestive questioning, Dodd has a small army of devoted followers who believe that their souls have traveled from vessel to vessel over the course of time. Due to his swift tongue and unmatched wit, Dodd clutches a crowd even when dissension is present. Freddie, as vicious and untamed as the ocean, seeks consistency from Dodd, a man as sure and sturdy as a ship. If Dodd can steady the whitecaps that consume his new protégé, then his gospel will serve as a path for the lost. Their relationship is full of admiration, disdain, and an impenetrable love, a love that’s challenged as Freddie’s lust becomes unquenchable and Dodd begins to doubt his is new-found friend.
Pushing Dodd’s doubt further is his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). Slightly paranoid and determined to change the perception around “The Cause”, Peggy pushes Dodd to justify Freddie’s presence. Angered and bewildered, Peggy sits and watches her husband tango with the devil. An interesting dynamic exists between the three characters, as they exist in a plot that’s episodic, lucid and evasive, hinging The Master’s success on the performances, which are phenomenal. The most notable performance belongs to Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix, featuring a bent posture, is a towering force. With a slacked jaw and vacant eyes, Phoenix mercilessly taps into Freddie’s butchered, intoxicated soul. It’d be easy to say that Phoenix plays the perfect drunk, but there are moments of clarity and sincerity when Phoenix’s mumbled words expose a man troubled beyond the war. Matching Phoenix’s performance is Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who gives commanding sermons. Hoffman establishes an equilibrium between a sympathetic leader and a pretentious, self-congratulating prophet. But Hoffman also makes Dodd a frightening tyrant, where his explosions are just as primal and dangerous as Phoenix’s violent, drunken outbursts. When the two work together in a scene, which is often, The Master is wildly engrossing.
Framing these fantastic actors is the incomparable PTA, who has crafted his most disciplined film. Well written and tightly wound, the script features surprising character moments, mixed in with profound psychological weight. Few scenes represent this better than a moment when Peggy literally has Dodd by the balls. It’s a scene that wonderfully transmits a woman’s growing presence in a culture being redefined. Amy Adams gracefully sells the scene with an assertive dominance, a trait she instills throughout the film despite her character’s assumed cheeriness. In conjunction with production designer Jack Fisk, PTA also magically captures an era that was desperately seeking guidance in a world disillusioned by war. PTA’s meticulous visual panache is further cemented by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., a first time collaborator. Malaimare Jr. beautifully photographs a variety of alienating hues and locales that hearken back to a lost time. Supplementing the images is another inventive score from Jonny Greenwood. Featuring offbeat percussive notes, distant woodwinds and anxious strings, Greenwood’s musical accompaniments are a mixture of volatile and serene compounds, perfectly capturing the essence of PTA’s work. Artistic and pragmatic, The Master has us seeking answers in what seems like an endless ocean. We’re unsure of what lies ahead on the horizon, but PTA gives us reason to embrace nature’s unforgiving waves.