Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek, Madisen Beaty. (2012, R, 137 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 21, 2012
When Dylan sang “You’re gonna have to serve somebody,” he only put up two options – the Devil or the Lord – but Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film tenders a third: Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a writer and quasi-spiritualist known to his followers as the Master. Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a World War II vet with frayed nerves, eventually finds himself among Dodd’s flock, but first we meet him at the tail end of the war. Freddie, a sailor, skulks around a Pacific island like a sex-obsessed monkey wearing the haunted sneer of post-car-crash Montgomery Clift. He hangs around the edges of groups and takes jokes too far – a gag humping a sand-castle dame first elicits laughs, then uncomfortable shrugs when Freddie becomes aroused – and he grows even more unhinged during peacetime, a drifter and a drunk with rage coursing in his veins. It’s a toss-up as to what Freddie requires most – a master, a sponsor, or a shrink – and Dodd vacillates between all these roles when he takes Freddie on as a pet cause.
After the exuberantly chaotic sprawl of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Anderson’s pictures have grown more controlled, more tightly coiled. (Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant, menacing, spare-seeming scores for The Master and There Will Be Blood have been a crucial component in the transition.) That doesn’t mean Anderson has narrowed his scope or ambition: The Master is nothing short of an alternate history to the bobby-socked, Panglossed Fifties, a bracing antidote to our rose-colored pictures of prosperity and suburban domesticity.
For all the film’s stupendous expanses of land and sea (shot in 65mm, to breath-catching effect), the predominant feeling here is that of trapped space: below decks, in windowless rooms and jail cells, and inside Freddie’s head. Freddie is not a thoughtful man – he’s all instinct – but Phoenix’s every muscle movement animates Freddie’s inner workings. We know him better than he knows himself. It’s not a happy place to be, and the actor burrows so completely into the role, he looks sick from the effort. Phoenix has the showier part, with its can’t-look-away synthesis of hard angles, fidgets, and honking guffaws, but the entire cast is working on an extraordinary level of play, most especially Hoffman as the charlatan-charismatic, and Amy Adams as his Lady Macbeth-like wife. Their complex character interplay pushes the film forward, even as the plot loses its urgency late in the second act.
The founding tenet of Dodd’s self-made religion, the Cause, is that man must defeat the animal within. That’s a tall order for a creature of impulse and outsized appetites like Freddie, who never seems more at peace than when he is laughing, fucking, and drunk as a skunk, and an even taller order for a film. That war – between man and animal – is The Master’s principal inquiry, and its findings are exhausting, exhilarating, and, in the end, irreconcilable.