There are several reasons to see “The Master,” the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer-director of “Punch Drunk Love,” “There Will Be Blood” and “Boogie Nights.” There are engaging performances, incredible cinematography (the first film to be shot in 65mm film stock since 1996’s “Hamlet”) and once again Anderson serves up a film landing outside categorization and formality.
To be more specific – Joaquin Phoenix.
Phoenix plays Navy veteran Freddie Quell, a troubled man that isn’t settling into life post-war. He drinks homemade alcohol made from dangerous materials and has a disturbingly short fuse. A stint as a department store photographer becomes frighteningly real as Freddie comes unglued with an older man. A brawl ensues and Freddie runs away. After a farm worker becomes ill from his alcohol Freddie runs away again and comes into the company of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a writer-philosopher-theoretical physicist (and many more titles). Dodd leads The Cause, is slowly massing followers and has written a novel in the vein of self-help pop-psychology.
Dodd takes an interest in Freddie, using him as a psychological test subject but clearly has a fondness for him. No matter how much Freddie causes trouble Dodd retains his company. The two couldn’t be more polar opposites. Freddie is the explosion and Dodd sometimes the curator of the device. The character of Dodd has been compared to L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology. Lack of familiarity to either won’t affect viewing the film, but Dodd is portrayed as enigmatic cultist.
“The Master” is rife with tension – between Dodd and his followers or the public at large. Mostly it comes from Phoenix who gives a singular, mesmerizing performance that’s perhaps the year’s best. Thankfully Phoenix didn’t give up acting as he proclaimed in 2008. As Freddie Phoenix’s long stares, thought processes and piercing eyes punctuate a performance that leaves you concerned about just what Freddie will do next, to someone or to himself.
The actor physically separates himself from the Phoenix seen before as Johnny Cash or the emotionally bare character in “Two Lovers,” the James Gray film that was supposed to be Phoenix’s last role. Here Phoenix is rail thin, gaunt and leading with a visage that’s angular and hawkish. Phoenix looks maddened as he walks around hunched over, pants worn too high. He talks outside of one side of his mouth and props his hands on his waist and skulks about like Martin Short as Ed Grimley.
In the film’s most powerful scene Freddie and Dodd square off for an examination. Dodd asks questions quickly and Freddie has to answer without blinking his eyes and staring directly at Dodd. It’s a long take on Phoenix who struggles to not blink, answer emotional questions and slowly breaks down. It’s a moment that’s emotionally charged and but strained enough you expect to Freddie to lash out physically. Phoenix’s performance is outstanding, one finding the actor possessed by the character and acting in scenes where the fights and physicality is eerily authentic.
“The Master” is rather vague regarding Dodd as a practitioner of an approach to psychology and therapy that borders on science fiction. It’s also vague about its characters, even though we know Freddie is scarred from the war. As confounding as it may be this works to propel the film from searing drama to mysterious reflection. In the story Dodd works with people to cure themselves from their memories, recent or from past lives. “The Master” unfurls like a series of memories. Some scenes feel less like scenes, but rather, moments in time strung together to create a narrative.
Anderson is a director that has you wondering what he’ll come up with next. He’s done it again. Even if you don’t like “The Master,” it’s worth taking in on performances alone.