Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando
Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master has quickly become the most theorized film of 2012. It's not interested in story, but rather, mood. Before its release, it was said that this film was Anderson's take on Scientology, and to a degree it is, just not in the way many are expecting.
The overall atmosphere of the film is disturbing: every scene hints at an eruption of violence that sometimes occurs and sometimes doesn't, creating a sense of unease and fascination. We feel this largely due to Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both entirely different characters, yet each one possessing a certain sinister quality that hints at instability.
Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a World War II veteran who brings new meaning to the word addiction, as he both an extreme alcoholic and completely obsessed with sex. His face is twisted, his body is bent, and his actions are menacing. He floats from one job to the next, first as a photographer, then as a cabbage farmer, though his primary skill in both occupations is concocting new ways of making his own alcoholic beverages. When he poisons an old man on the cabbage farm (whether or not it's accidental is up to the viewer to decide), he flees the farm and stows away on a yacht for the evening. As fate would have it, this yacht belongs to Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), the leader of group called "The Cause".
Lancaster sees something in Freddie and decides to take him on as his protégé. For whatever reason, Freddie doesn't run away from him, and yet again, the reasons are left up to us to decide. There's a connection between these two men, one that is so powerful, Lancaster's wife, Peggy (played with understated intimidation by the brilliant Amy Adams), takes notice and becomes visibly jealous the longer Freddie stays with The Cause.
One of the many theories out there posit that The Master, more than anything else, is a love story between these two men, and to an extent, it is. Lancaster seems more aware and comfortable with his feelings for Freddie, whereas Freddie is a puzzle. You can't help but wonder if he's aware of those feelings and playing him for a fool, or if he's just too stupid to realize it. Thus, the question of who the master is shifts back and forth between these two characters, even though Lancaster is mostly referred to as Master by his followers.
Freddie doesn't seem to need a world with rules and regulations. He doesn't fit in with society and could very much qualify as his own distinct breed of human. Yet Phoenix plays him so perfectly that you cannot help but wonder if he truly is the Master of his world, everything he does being a calculated choice in manipulating Lancaster to reveal himself as a fraud. Or maybe, Lancaster is the master manipulator, though much more overtly than Freddie. He has a following, a commanding presence, and most importantly, the power of persuasion.
Anderson succeeds in making a movie that is open to a variety of interpretations. and his attention to period detail (it takes place in 1950) and visual composition are breathtaking. Shooting mostly in close-up only further illicits that sinister feeling in the audience that conveys something bad will happen. It's claustrophobic, jarring and very effective. Setting it in 1950 makes the film feel otherworldly all together, as this is a 1950 we've never seen before and one that could only come to life through Anderson's lens. Assisting him perfectly, as far as the tone of the film is concerned, is the eerie score provided by Jonny Greenwood. If there's one thing that stays in your head leaving the theater, it's the music heard throughout the film, more twisted than Freddie himself.
In other words, The Master is different. It's unique in almost every way, yet somehow a lesser achievement when compared to Anderson's previous work. The pacing is off, the length of the film becomes problematic when the last chunk of the film feels unnecessary, and the shift in focus between both men doesn't fully work. Despite these flaws, however, The Master succeeds on its own terms. While it may not be Anderson's masterpiece, it's certainly unlike anything else you're likely to see all year.