The Master is not easily pigeon-holed as a film but one can argue that it is, at its core, a brilliant anti-war movie.
The Master. Directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson. At cinemas throughout New England.
By Glenn Rifkin.
It would be fair to say that 2012 has, thus far, not been much of a year for great movies. Rare is the night at the theater where you sat transfixed, hardly blinking, hardly breathing, in awe of what was taking place on the screen. But that is what happens at The Master, the remarkable, new film from Paul Thomas Anderson, who wrote, produced, and directed this Oscar-worthy spectacle. Anderson, whose 2007 epic There Will Be Blood was nominated for eight Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director) and won two, has taken his time crafting a follow up. But for true film lovers, it was worth the wait.
With truly stunning performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, The Master is powerful and perplexing, the type of movie that sticks with you for days afterward as you search for conversations, read reviews, and try to make sense of all that transpires in this riveting drama. Some will say that the performances outdo the script, and there are certainly plenty of unanswered questions that will undoubtedly irritate some movie-goers. But to miss this film is to deny yourself the real essence of why we love movies at all. The lush cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr., the pounding, discordant score by Jonny Greenwood, the reach for something unique and raw in Anderson’s script and deft directing, all signal the presence of a future “classic.”
But make no mistake: this is Hoffman’s and Phoenix’s film, a whole new level of brilliance for two already accomplished actors who manage to suck the air out of the theater with performances that will forever stamp both careers.
As Lancaster Dodd, the fiery, charismatic preacher for The Cause, a cult-like religion he has invented out of whole cloth, Hoffman joins a small fraternity of compelling movie evangelists that includes Burt Lancaster’s 1960 Oscar-winning portrayal of Elmer Gantry and Robert Duvall’s 1998 Oscar-nominated turn as The Apostle. If Hoffman doesn’t win the 2013 Best Actor Oscar, it will be because he loses to Phoenix, whose portrayal of Freddie Quell, a shell-shocked, World War II veteran, is nothing short of other-worldly. Given his widely publicized announcement a few years ago that he was leaving acting for a career as a rapper, Phoenix, 37, makes a memorable return to his craft with a performance so enthralling that his character’s pain and anguish leaches off the screen into the audience’s collective hearts. Anderson’s close-ups of Quell call to mind the iconic Dorothea Lange Dust Bowl photos from the Great Depression. There is damage in this face that cannot be undone.
The time is 1950, and Quell, unbalanced, literally bent over at the waist, lines of despair etched in his face, has returned to the suddenly joyous and prosperous, peacetime America where he is little more than a tragic misfit. Post-traumatic stress disorder was a yet to be named affliction, and the choices for a man like Quell were the “loony bin” or a life wandering at the dark edges of society. Tested by military shrinks, he sees nothing but genitalia, which bespeaks his sexually-charged obsessions. Unable to hold a job, he spends his time concocting horrifying cocktails replete with paint thinner, gasoline, and any other poisons he can find. What impact these potions have on his already troubled brain is anybody’s guess. But the lines of grief, the crooked sneering way he speaks, the depth of pain in his dark eyes foretell the eruptive violence that curdles just below his skin. He is an unexploded armament left over from the war.
When he crosses paths with Dodd, whom his zealous followers call “Master,” Quell is immediately embraced as the perfect guinea pig for The Cause. In him, Dodd sees the whole history of mankind, reduced from perfection to disgrace, and if he can rehabilitate this shell of a man, it will cement his triumph. When a puzzled but fascinated Quell asks what he does, Dodd replies, “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.” But Quell is less inquisitive than perplexed and infatuated. Perhaps this man can save him or perhaps this is just more nonsense and frustration the world is serving him.
Hoffman’s incredibly nuanced performance—he sings, he dances, he jokes with his followers but is quickly enraged if anybody questions his Cause—is no surprise to those who have followed his remarkable career. At age 45, Hoffman is at the top of his game, one of the finest actors working in cinema, with a range so vast—who can forget this Oscar-winning portrayal of Truman Capote—that it seems as if there is nothing he can’t do. But his work with Anderson, which includes Punch-Drunk Love and Hoffman’s breakout role in Boogie Nights, is more than notable. Teaming him with Phoenix and Amy Adams, terrific as Dodd’s manipulative wife Peggy, in their first film together demonstrates Anderson’s filmmaking bona fides.
The Master is not easily pigeon-holed as a film, but one can argue that it is, at its core, a brilliant anti-war movie, one that employs not the carnage of war ala Saving Private Ryan but the detritus that washes ashore after the last battles are fought. Post-war America, with its waves of returning veterans eager to share in the surging prosperity and triumph, was susceptible to charlatans selling paradise. And it was equally capable of allowing victims whose wounds were not swathed in bandages to fall into bottomless cracks. The Master is a haunting, often disturbing portrait of one man’s tenuous hold on sanity and another’s misguided grasp at immortality. Don’t forget to breathe.