Paul Thomas Anderson belongs to a select group of American filmmakers who have a pronounced and controlled authority in their work. He writes characters that are down on their luck, who are gray and mischievous, and who are addicts, morally unsound and chaotic. Protagonists are virtually nonexistent and are instead replaced by shady anti-heroes. There is a looming sense of liquid anxiety in his films, dragging the viewer into the current, shoving their heads beneath the murky water, and allowing them but a gulp of air every few scenes to placate their willingness to survive the experience. Anderson is a cerebral director who challenges the audience in several ways. The main challenge in Anderson’s latest installment, The Master, is to just stay in your seat.
This film is definitely not for everyone. The Master is the type of film that does well at film festivals (and it did) and caters acutely to viewers who have the patience for European-style character studies. The key word here is patience. Several people walked out on the film with looks of confusion and anger. Some were so fed up with the film that they were openly vocal about their disdain before leaving the rest of us in our daze. But with a little patience and a bit of extraneous thought, you may dissect from this film a unique experience that departs from the norms of American cinema, and takes you to places that are both uncomfortable and refreshing all at once.
The Master has widely been hyped as fodder for the Academy Awards, but even with its interesting story of futility and faith, the intangibility of the plot at times may be crippling in the race for Best Picture. This film instead finds its greatest potential in acting, writing, cinematography, and musical score. Anderson has written freshly commanding characters for The Master, characters who dominate the world they live in with very forceful personalities, set unto the cacophony of Johnny Greenwood’s musical score. Green¬wood worked on Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood and carries on in the creation of chaotic scores that swerve neatly from anarchic beats to sweeping string arrangements.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman shows his acting chops as the self proclaimed 1950’s poly¬math, Lancaster Dodd, whose life is loosely based on the likeness of Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The character is self-righteous, forcing his cause upon others as total truth, despite its absurdities. Hoff¬man’s group of believers include Amy Adams as Mary Sue Dodd, whose constant presence on screen besides her husband speaks volumes, and who is likely to receive a nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her efforts.
Lancaster Dodd is the titular “master” who seeks to tame the alcoholic vagrant and U.S. Navy veteran Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) with the mystic teachings of “the cause.” Phoenix is brilliant as the violent and twisted alcoholic. You can almost smell the liquor on his breath when he is on screen, his drunken and sexually frustrated encounters with the world involving the viewer in an arduous game of believe versus disbelief. We are left to wonder if there is any truth at all to the story of Freddy Quell, who declares himself a liar, and whose spirit, sunken as it is under the weight of post-war America, is ultimately that of a vagabond sailor. If you take the challenge, and indeed sit down for this film, you may be surprised in more ways than one.