The first close-up in The Master, the sublimely grand and wonderfully eccentric new film from Paul Thomas Anderson, holds tightly on the eyes of Freddie Quell, the troubled seaman played by Joaquin Phoenix. Anderson’s camera fixes on those eyes—fixates on them, really—and challenges us to understand what’s happening behind them. For a good long while, it’s anybody’s guess; Freddie is an opaque and worrisome protagonist, an aimless troublemaker and desperate alcoholic who puts himself into questionable situations with nary a moment’s hesitation. Throughout the film’s first act, those eyes are a blank, the actor following the lead of a director determined not to show his hand. And then he meets The Master.
The Master’s name is Lancaster Dodd, and as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, he’s gruff but gregarious, charismatic and comforting, the kind of man who commands a room effortlessly. They meet when Freddie impulsively slips onto Dodd’s pleasure boat, which then cruises off into the night. In a ballsy bit of narrative gambling, Anderson (who wrote and directed) chooses not to show us what happens next. Instead, he cuts to the morning after, as Freddie awakens in a stateroom, and Dodd tells him what occurred the evening previous. Freddie’s in no condition to contradict him; he was thoroughly blotto. So he must take the older man at his word.
The trickiness of that proposition—of knowing whether or not Lancaster Dodd can be trusted, and for that matter, whether Freddie is to be trusted himself—is at the center of The Master, and is the picture’s primary preoccupation. Because Dodd is the leader of a fledgling religious organization known as “The Cause,” and because the character bears a more than passing resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard, most have presumed it to be some kind of devastating, scorched-earth takedown of Scientology. And maybe it is; Dodd’s own son insists that “he’s making this all up as he goes along,” and “The Cause” seems mostly comprised of intricate “processes,” “applications,” and platitudes like “the source of all is you.” But that’s not what it’s about. It’s a far more interesting movie than that.
It is also, as you will certainly read in other reviews and hear from those who see it, a “difficult” film. To be sure, more than one scene left this viewer puzzled, and Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s camera is mostly aloof, viewing the action from a distance, moving rarely and then only definitively, with purpose. Anderson is miles away from the energetic but borderline haphazard mise-en-scène of Boogie Nights; his frames are often wide but always focused, and the much-ballyhooed 70mm photography allows us to drink in all of the gorgeous period details. (He also exhibits a dry sense of visual humor; there’s a great medium wide of Freddie and Dodd in adjacent jail cells, their wildly contrasting reactions to the situation creating the film’s drollest and funniest moment. And it’s a funnier movie than you might expect.)
Anderson’s filmmaking has never been more confident—even when we’re not sure where he’s going (which is much of the time), the craftsmanship on display and the director’s sure hand propels the film along without hesitation. The long set piece detailing Freddie’s training/breaking/making is thrillingly disturbing; the way he folds in flashbacks of the young man’s heartbreak is smashing. And he wisely re-ups with There Will Be Blood composer (and Radiohead guitarist) Johnny Greenwood, whose score here is pulsing, unnerving, and urgent.
It’s a good match for the intensity he gets from Hoffman, who first displays an effervescent cool and beatific elegance and then slowly shows it crumbling. Watch his modulation, vocally and emotionally, in the bravura scene where his party pontification is interrupted by a smirking interloper—Dodd is working hard, so very hard, to keep his patience and his cool, and then he loses them both spectacularly. In that scene, and a later one with Laura Dern, Hoffman finds that the key to the character is the short fuse that he’s simply unable to keep from lighting when confronted with what is clearly, clearly unforgivable stupidity. And Amy Adams, as his hard-nosed and manipulative wife, is quietly magnificent.
But this is Phoenix’s show, and a welcome one after that puzzling and annoying I’m Still Here pseudo-Kaufman shit show. It’s a vividly physical piece of work: the way he paces, how he juts out his jaw and talks out of the corner of his mouth, the peculiar manner with which he holds his hands just a touch too high on his hips. But, from that first moment forward, the performance is all about his eyes. In the film’s key scene, the Master “processes” Freddy with a rapid-fire questioning about his past and his problems, and tells him that he must not blink or they will start over. The camera holds on him closely (Hoffman is barely glimpsed in the scene) as he keeps his eyes open and lets himself go, and for the first time, forcefully, we can see what’s happening in them, and behind them. It’s a stunning, virtuoso bit of film acting, matched only by the expressiveness conveyed by those eyes in the film’s startling closing scenes. The Master is a rich film—intoxicating and lived-in, a bold and ambitious cinematic symphony.