Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies have always shown an affinity for lost souls, from the family of misfit porn stars in Boogie Nights to the ruthless industrialist of There Will Be Blood. The hard-drinking, mumbling, antisocial Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) may be Anderson’s most astray creation yet.
Freddie first appears in The Master as a World War II naval veteran, stumbling from job to job in 1950. His preferred hobby is downing illicit drinks mixed from life-threatening ingredients like paint remover. When asked if these concoctions are poisonous, Freddie mumbles, “Not if you drink ‘em smart.”
Such risk-taking leads to the event that changes his life, an apparently chance meeting with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). This meeting occurs off camera: Freddie only finds out about it when he sneaks on board a docked boat one night, then wakes up at sea: Dodd informs him that they met the night before, over a batch of Freddie’s booze. Charismatic and confident, billing himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, [and] a man, just like you,” Dodd offers Freddie work in service of the Cause, a group founded on the fuzzy line between religion and cult—though Dodd never invokes the former and bristles at mention of the latter.
Dodd presents himself as a self-help messiah, offering pseudo-scientific explanations for mental and physical problems. The Cause, with its early-‘50s origins, science-fiction overtones, and murky “processing” of its members, obviously resembles Scientology, the religion created by sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard and favored by a number of powerful figures in Hollywood. But The Master is less as an indictment of a particular belief system than a penetrating, sometimes opaque character study of Freddie. Dodd remains a more remote figure and even after Freddie becomes close with Dodd, chunks of their relationship remain unseen, just like that first meeting.
And so the movie becomes a fascinating duet between Phoenix and Hoffman, with several bars intentionally left out. Phoenix gives a powerfully physical performance: standing with skewed posture and hands on his hips, he looks like a gnarled bird, wild and wounded. Although Freddie’s devotion to the Cause itself seems questionable, he takes it upon himself to act as Dodd’s enforcer, strong-arming skeptics and dissenters. Dodd never explicitly orders these attacks, and sometimes even condemns them, but his dressing down of Freddie seems half-hearted and affectionate. His motivations remain opaque. Is Dodd touched by Freddie’s loyalty? Moved by his post-war traumas? Convinced that he makes a sterling test subject?
Even when Dodd’s family—adult children Val (Jesse Plemons) and Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) from a previous marriage, and his pregnant new wife Peggy (Amy Adams)—worries about Freddie’s volatility, Dodd keeps quiet about his own purpose. Peggy takes it on herself to urge Freddie to quit drinking and let the Cause heal him. This healing involves Freddie submitting to “processing,” in some of the film’s longest sequences. In an early version of the process, Dodd pummels Freddie with relentless, repetitive questioning; later, Freddie appears worn down by a series of monotonous tasks.
These unpredictable scenes hinge on the question of what stripping Freddie of his alcoholism, his violence, and his traumas will uncover, a question intensified by Anderson’s use of the camera. The filmmaker has always favored extended takes, but here, instead of the long, winding shots of Boogie Nights or Magnolia, cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.‘s camera often tracks left or right, suggesting Freddie’s restless, heedless momentum as he blasts through his surroundings.
In one of the movie’s most evocative shots, both men are confined in jail cells, side by side, the bars splitting the screen in two as Freddie thrashes in futility on the left and Dodd holds his ground on the right. Here and elsewhere, Anderson’s decision to shoot an intimate movie on 70mm film gives it a vivid, almost hyper-real force. From the most striking big-canvas compositions (the blues of the ocean where Freddie drifts) to the tiniest details (the light reflecting in Phoenix’s eyes in close-up), The Master invites us to imagine what we can’t know.
Indeed, in some moments, the film becomes dreamlike, as we sink repeatedly into Freddie’s point of view. That point of view is not strictly subjective. The movie occasionally observes scenes between Dodd and Peggy that Freddie can’t see, but these offer only tantalizing hints at the mechanics of their relationship. In this way, The Master sometimes feels deliberately obtuse, as if carved from a much larger whole, leaving Dodd’s children or his associate Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern) to the background. This technique can be frustrating, but it is also revelatory. Both epic and personal, The Master‘s story of pain demonstrates Anderson’s own remarkable mastery.