Paul Thomas Anderson is one of modern cinema’s master filmmakers crafting one unique story after another. His latest, appropriately titled “The Master” is no exception. It’s written from the perspective of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a sailor barely coping with a form of shell shock (never diagnosed but mentioned by a V.A. doctor) in post WW2 America. He stumbles upon Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and is slowly manipulated into following “The Cause”. Anderson’s script is more about control than religion; the main talking point. Is this a movie about Scientology? Not completely. Yes Dodd and his convert believe in reincarnation through time and space but you could easily substitute that with politics and get a similar outcome. What the screenplay is more motivated thematically in is Dodd and Freddie’s relationship. Can one truly possess another both physically and mentally? Dodd always refers to his right hand man as an animal, calling him “good-boy” or “bad Freddie”! Also living in a post war environment creates an interesting mood of where do we go now? Perhaps we’re all looking for something lost; wondering in a no man’s land.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as an alcoholic drifter might be his career defining work! At the very least, it’s the best piece of acting captured on film this year. He’s always bent out of shape, feral, and unpredictable in his actions, with Billy Idol’s snarl and Mick Jagger’s pose. When going toe to toe with Philip Seymour Hoffman, he holds his own. When Hoffman processes Phoenix with a series of questions, at first Joaquin’s character takes the Q & A lightly, even farting during one, but when he recalls a time with Madisen Beaty’s Doris, the actor introduces a new layer creating this very complex individual. Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of Anderson’s actors, is himself a very strong, charismatic leader channeling Orson Welles at times. I loved his music number as he spontaneously belts out a tune at a party while Phoenix envisions naked women of all shapes and sizes sprinkled throughout the crowd. Finally Amy Adams is potent in a smaller role as Hoffman’s wife, or is she the master? I enjoyed her provocations to her husband to be more aggressive with naysayers.
Anderson is both a stylist and writer. We’ve seen his visuals and camera movements define his work in movies like Boogie Nights, Magnolia and in 2007, There Will Be Blood push the autuer to new heights in a character centric production. The choices he makes here are even more polarizing than previously, with tight close ups of Phoenix when asked questions or when the lead gets into a fight with a customer at a store. Much of the action is seen from a distance. Anderson’s decision to again use Jonny Greenwood to compose his score was a spot on. It’s eerie string section and unsettling woodwinds build Anderson’s tone. If I had a complaint it would be not being able to tell how much time has passed during Phoenix’s stay with the Dodd’s. The only indication of time lapse is seeing Adams pregnant and then not.
As for the visuals PTA had to pick a new cinematographer because Robert Elswit was unavailable for the production. Enter Mihai Malaimare Jr. who was given the task of shooting on 70mm. Although there is no action scene to showcase the capabilities of this film stock as did Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister for IMAX, it does create texture, depth and exposes light from both set and sun beautifully. There is a shot of the Pacific Ocean that is shown several times imbedded throughout that I couldn’t see enough times.
The Master won’t be for everyone but for true cinema-goers it’s a treasure. The entire cast and crew are at the top of their game collaborating to make yet another Paul Thomas Anderson film that will be dissected for years to come.