IT takes quite the nerve for a writer-director to call his picture The Master. There is a teasing superiority about it, as though whatever follows thou shalt believe you are in the presence of a superior filmmaking talent.
When the picture in question is a portrait of a megalomaniac, audiences might start to think the director, in this case Paul Thomas Anderson, has been partaking of a few sly sips of the Kool-Aid himself.
Just as well, then, that Anderson has the talent to back up the title of his film. If you thought Magnolia or Boogie Nights had marked Anderson out as one of the most ambitious and innovative directors working today, prepare to welcome The Master. If you reckoned Daniel Day-Lewis struck oil with his towering performance in the tale of an entrepreneur gone to the bad in There Will Be Blood, get ready to have your waking and sleeping hours disturbed by Joaquin Phoenix as one very troubled soul indeed.
Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an all-American train wreck of a man. We first meet him on a beach where he and his Navy buddies have washed up during the Second World War. We don't know what has happened to Freddie and his shipmates, but when they are demobbed there is talk of "nervous conditions".
Freddie, rarely sober, continues to stumble through life till one night he chances upon a ship where a party is in full swing. It is 1950. Dancing on the deck are Lancaster Dodd and his wife Peggy (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams).
Freddie's first meeting with Dodd shows this ship is carrying some rum cargo indeed. Dodd, the self-proclaimed master of the title, describes himself to Freddie as a man of many parts, from nuclear physicist to writer. At heart he is an Old Testament prophet type, but one selling a shiny new set of beliefs. In one telling moment, he invites Freddie to join the party, informing him: "Your memories aren't invited."
Dodd is selling reinvention, encouraging his followers to believe that they have lived before, will live again, and that everything can be sorted out in between. If they follow The Cause and believe, they can be cured of whatever ails them.
Whether The Master is meant to be a portrait of Scientology's beginnings is a matter Anderson keeps fairly fuzzy. There are obvious hints, but this could just as well be a study of any charismatic individual determined to bend others to his will. In this case, Freddie – poor, crazy Freddie – is to be Dodd's "guinea pig and protégé". If Dodd can fix Freddie, is there anyone he can't fix?
Thus begins a duel between Dodd and Freddie, between control and free will, father figure and son, which in the hands of Seymour Hoffman and Phoenix is almost hypnotic in its intensity. Such is the electricity between the two that Adams performs a minor miracle in making her presence felt as Dodd's wife, the power behind the throne. It could have been a blink-and-you'll-miss-it part, but Adams is worth more than that, and Anderson lets her show it.
Over the course of a 143-minute film, only one detail seemed sloppy, and that was the name of a character. Otherwise, the images match the ideas and characters for grandeur. Be it a scene set in the Arizona desert or a simple shot of a printing press, there is nothing on which Anderson's camera does not lavish attention, his actors most of all.
Seymour Hoffman plays Dodd as a great bear of a man, growling and padding and roaring his way across the screen. Charming one minute, menacing or furious the next, he is utterly convincing. The part requires a lot from Seymour Hoffman, not least staying upright when Phoenix gets into full hurricane mode. The big guy does not waver.
Impressive as Seymour Hoffman is, Phoenix leaves him, and everyone else, standing. As with Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, there will be an Oscar nomination. Or there ought to be.
Phoenix plays Freddie as a man stripped to the bone, physically and mentally. Hunched and skeletal, he is a jangle of nerves and impulses, a soul rubbed raw and put on display for all to see. While it is almost painful to watch at times, such is the ferocity and vulnerability on show, it is impossible to look away.
Watching any Anderson film requires a certain perspective. At first, such is the swirl of characters and ideas, it is like trying to look at a picture with one's nose pressed against the canvas. It is only on stepping back, over hours and even days, that the whole starts to become clear. Once the wonder is apparent you want to see the trick again, if only to marvel at how he does it. Master of all he portrays, that's Anderson.
joaquin phOEnix interview: page 21
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