The Master is a magnum opus of conflict. No man, attitude, sight or sound is immune to its discord. Paul Thomas Anderson uses every millimeter of the film — yes, all 70 of them — to exact a lurking, semi-conscious anxiety. He wants to unsettle us, and he wants to do it methodically. The result is the most difficult and mysterious film he’s ever made.
But before I get ahead of myself, here’s what The Master is not: a biography of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, an exposé about Scientology’s origins or a thinly veiled account of Scientology. The Master is as concerned with the specifics of Hubbard and Scientology as There Will Be Blood was with turn-of-the-century oil tycoons Edward Doheny and Harry Sinclair. These men inspire Anderson’s stories; they do not dictate them.
The Master: Phoenix and Hoffman
Where There Will Be Blood borrows from reality, The Master juxtaposes. We meet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) amid an elegant reduction of World War II — the camera lingers close on his face and helmet, leaving his surroundings ambiguous — and then, suddenly, he’s horsing around on a beach with other sailors, mimicking sex with a shapely, sand sculpture of a woman. On the shoreline, scantily clad men wrestle and smoke; Freddie, upping the ante of the perverse hyper-masculine fantasy world, jerks off into the ocean. Later, when a V.A. hospital shrink administers a Rorschach test to him, he sees only “pussy” and “cock” in the inkblots. The horrors he experienced at war don’t need to be revealed — his sexual frustration makes clear that he’s suffering from significant, possibly irreparable trauma. (Look to his name, too: “Quell” comes awfully close to evoking the impression of a small, delicate phallus.)
Back in the states, away from the open seas and working as a portrait photographer at a department store, Freddie’s psyche continues to deteriorate. He’s repressed on dry land, to be sure, yet he’s still surreptitiously indulging his urges. (Deliciously, Anderson and Jonny Greenwood use Ella Fitzgerald’s “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan” to drive this point home.) Freddie knocks back toxic cocktails concocted from darkroom chemicals, turpentine and booze — quite literally, if not medically, poisoning himself. He gawks like an infant at women’s breasts and desperately lusts for sex. He’s a man-child whose primal aggression doesn’t belong within the homogenized society of post-war America.
After losing his job and fleeing from another, a late-night bender lands Freddie aboard a yacht named Alethia — a nod to the Heidegger’s theory of unconcealedness– and, finally, into the bizarre world of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Lancaster is “Master” of The Cause, a burgeoning cult that believes sickness can be cured by recalling past lives, and once the yacht ships out into the ever-important ocean, he seduces Freddie with a combination of intellectual charisma and paternalistic authority. As is often the case in Anderson’s films, though, the titanic struggle that erupts between these two men ends up being far more complicated than the father-son relationship it suggests. In Freddie, Lancaster claims to see “a guinea pig and a protégé” — but he’s also looking for a friend who knows how to make a stiff drink. In Lancaster, Freddie sees the only person in the world who seems to care. When Lancaster puts Freddie through a “processing” session — a scene in which Anderson, Phoenix and Hoffman are all at their finest — The Master plots an inevitable course toward a rivalry that violently ebbs between fraternal affection and philosophical disdain.
It’s a rare thing to see an actor fully complement a director’s intentions, and yet The Master features two who pull it off. Phoenix contorts his face and body to become Freddie, perpetually slurring, twitching and jutting his elbows out at impossibly uncomfortable angles to makes his chest collapse in on itself. Phoenix’s Freddie isn’t just brooding and drinking. He’s suffering from a profound, painful malaise that perverts his emotional and physical well-being. To appreciate his performance, you only need to watch his body writhe. Hoffman, on the other hand, is deliberately more controlled. His Lancaster brilliantly weaves between pride, seduction, paranoia, rage and childishness, all beneath the veneer of a man who believes his own lies. When Anderson locks the two of them together in a scene — such as in that great “processing” scene — they engage in an artistic sparring match that rivals almost any other put on film.
Despite all of that, however, their struggle is not central to The Master. What’s at stake here isn’t the plight of a veteran or the dangers of a cult leader. Freddie and Lancaster merely reflect a question posed by everything else in the film: How should we react to our animal urges? Should we indulge them or smother them? It’s an unsettling question for an unsettling film, and Anderson knows it. That’s why he shot The Master in 70mm film (a high-definition format known for wide, deep-focused shots), only to lock his camera tight and shallow against Phoenix and Hoffman’s faces. That’s why Jonny Greenwood’s eccentric score leapfrogs from experimental, ambient noise to jazz divas. And that’s why Freddie never reaches a satisfying resolution. The Master isn’t about his battle with Lancaster. In the end, it’s about his libido: Has he mastered it, or has it mastered him?