Sitting down to write about Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest cinematic marvel can make you feel inadequate. There’s so many things going on in this 138-minute film that it stays with you hours, if not days, after walking out of the auditorium of your choice. Putting that kind of experience into words can be disorientating. Yet, the film begs to be expounded upon and dissected. If you’re familiar with Anderson’s films, you’ll know the familiar themes here. The film may receive a lot of press and talk because the setting is based in and around “The Cause,” which seems to bear striking similarities to Scientology, but the film is not about that as much as it is about the relationships we find, the beasts within us all, and how society and family can put incredible strain and pull on even the most strong-willed people. The post-war life isn’t all that it’s cracked up to before the mercurial Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix).
Freddie has always had an odd streak about him and by now is a constant drunkard who will mix turpentine and anything else to concote an elixir that will give him a buzz. He is outspoken, often violent, and when not in one of those modes always seems to be ready to break out like a caged lion. He finds himself after World War II unable to hold a steady job because of his unannounced violent mood swings that don’t seem to have a definable trigger. One day he stumbles upon a boat where Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is throwing a party and they form an unexpected bond over alcohol with a kick.
Dodd is a spiritualist huckster in the vein of L. Ron Hubbard (the creator of Scientology) and it is here that Freddie finally finds some semblance of a family that will deal with his flaws, even if Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), has reservations. Dodd is trying to build up a cultish religion and Freddie, Peggy is afraid, can possibly derail what they have worked for by both being a violent drunk and influencing her husband towards the drink as well.
Everyone seems to have an angle, save for Freddie, who is as aloof and impossible to control as a wild animal. The film has two main relationships that seem to be of particular interest to Anderson, who also wrote and co-produced The Master. There is the platonic bromance between Freddie and Lancaster, who seem to simply enjoy each other’s company for being at two vastly different ends of the spectrum. The two at one point embrace each other in a bear hug and end up rolling, wrestling on the lawn. Others seem shocked, unaware if it is just playful fun or something dangerous.
The two just seem to flow, but without a purpose they will inevitable clash as well. Freddie, of course, becomes the subject of Lancaster’s experiments and ideas, at one point having him do an exercise describing a glass window and a wood wall as members look on. He’s a pseudo surrogate father, though it’s hard to know if he does a good job or not. There’s also Peggy’s relationship with Lancaster that seems to shift throughout the film. She is the one that keeps him grounded and focused, and thus resents Freddie’s troublesome presence. While the performances of Hoffman and Phoenix are stunning, and the cinematography some of the best you may ever witness, there is a coldness to the entire affair. This is perhaps Anderson’s most detached film to date, and it also lacks an extreme focus.
What is The Master about? It’s entirely up to the viewer. Despite the backdrop of The Cause, Anderson never seems to reveal his hand in how he feels. Additionally, while the detachment can be troubling it also elevates its haunting qualities. Those nagging moments where the score outplays the narrative are gone, but in it’s place are sequences filled with shocking silence that will have you fearful of what the characters will do. If you are looking for moments where you finally “get it”, you will be lost. Don’t come in with expectations of having a coherent opinion right after the credits roll. The Master simply is and I welcome you to let it swallow you whole.