One of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s most notable traits to date has been to take the style of an existing well-loved director and give it a bit of a personal spin: Scorsese in Boogie Nights, Altman in Magnolia, Kubrick in There Will Be Blood. In his latest, The Master, it’s easier to discern a style that’s more distinctly his, but it also makes this his most unpredictably predictable movie. In other words, where audiences and critics used to be totally surprised by every new turn his filmography would take, from Tom Cruise as a self-help guru to Adam Sandler taken seriously, this is a movie somebody can come out of thinking, “Yep, that’s about what I expected from a P.T. Anderson picture.” You’ve got your dubious mentor figure, your protagonist with anger-management issues, your abrasive score that symbolizes the main character’s disturbed psyche… this isn’t necessarily a reductive observation, but Anderson’s own particular obsessions are clearly starting to come to the fore in his work. I would also venture a guess that the director is a Popeye fan – having used an actual song from Robert Altman’s movie version in Punch-Drunk Love, he here casts Joaquin Phoenix as a squinting sailor-man who talks out of one side of his mouth and has a penchant for trying to solve things with fisticuffs.
This is where the bait and switch comes in – you’ve probably heard that this is a movie starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a cult leader. It’s more accurate to say that it’s a movie about Joaquin Phoenix’s character, and his interactions with said cult leader. Roughly: imagine if There Will be Blood were told from Eli’s point of view, only instead of being a religious charlatan, Eli were Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. Hoffman’s is the character whose story you’d like to follow, but the movie stays on the outside looking in as far as he’s concerned. This is about Freddie Quell (Phoenix), damaged ex-sailor from World War II, who’s still sad over his true love leaving him. At least I think his last name is Quell; the press kit almost stubbornly refuses to mention a surname anywhere, though it’s said several times onscreen.
Said press kit also insists that the movie is “wholly fictional,” so if you think that the “Cause” established by Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), with its intense sessions of questioning, belief in past lives concealed by fake memories, billion-year commitments, and pseudo-naval uniforms sounds familiar, you must be imagining it, right? At one point, Freddie takes several publicity photos of Dodd; anybody who has ever paid attention while walking down Hollywood Blvd. will find them amusingly familiar. And that’s all we need to say about that. For now.
Plotwise, you really don’t have to worry about spoilers on this thing. There are no surprise developments, nor is the story as hard to follow as some initial reviews may have led you to believe (it’s art, but it’s not Malick) – the meat of this film is the nature of a relationship between two people, and you’re free to go as deep, or not, into that as you wish. (The film likely won’t feel too rewarding if you don’t actually want to go deeper, however.) Freddie, whose most notable skill is creating home cocktails from disgusting, borderline toxic ingredients like paint thinner, torpedo fuel, rubbing alcohol and pesticide (I would love to attend the premiere after-party just to see what the themed drinks would be), first meets Dodd when he stows away on the guru’s boat. Dodd thoroughly enjoys his nasty beverage skills, and Freddie is amused by the “processing” practiced by Dodd’s philosophy/religion hybrid, The Cause. Seeing in Freddie a wilder, more unfettered version of his own id, Dodd connects with Freddie on a primal level, while also trying to break him in like a pet with The Cause’s various brainwashing techniques (repetition, exercises seemingly designed to access emotions but that are actually about control, simple hypnotism, and so on).
Key to Dodd’s espoused beliefs is the notion that man is not an animal, but a perfect being trying to return to an inherently perfect state. Freddie is all animalistic urges and impulses – he may be the one person that a cult’s practices can have no effect on. He also brings out the animal side of Dodd, who proceeds to lose his cool facade numerous times, whether shouting down critics or beating off into the sink. If we were to take Dodd’s faith at face value, Freddie would arguably be the little devil sitting on his shoulder, while wife Peggy (Amy Adams) would be the angel (reality, of course, is trickier than belief systems tend to be). Dodd is officially called “Master” by his acolytes, but in keeping with the movie’s artistic aspirations, the title is ambiguous, and forces you to ask yourself who the real master is in this dynamic.
Phoenix recently pulled off the role of a lifetime when he convinced people he actually was a delusional, alcoholic rage-case while filming I’m Still Here, so he’s perfect for this. The squint and the half-mouth talking feel a little like gimmicks, but if we assume that his hazardous homebrew gave him a stroke or two along the way, it’s not too far-fetched. Hoffman, however, is so appealing he makes you wish the movie actually were about him. A real Lafayette Ronald Hubbard biopic would be fascinating, and yet probably impossible to make given the disparity in accounts of his life between his followers and opponents. As this is “wholly fiction,” however, it’s a slight disappointment that this movie’s Plainview isn’t quite in, uh, plain view. And is it too dismissive to imply that all Freddie’s problems stem from a bad breakup? This is not just a surface read – the story comes back to it again and again, all but ignoring the notion that being in a war was more significant. That generation never really talked about such things, and maybe one is simply meant to infer the shell-shock, especially since gurus like Dodd have the success they do because, in many cases, they’re the first person to actually listen to a would-be acolyte’s problems (if only to use them as blackmail material later).
Maybe the entire point of the movie, in fact, is that you have to “process” it yourself. It won’t offer up any answers if you don’t submit it to your own series of questions. Are you in the mood for that? It’s not a billion-year commitment, but at 137 minutes, it is one that may be longer than some are prepared for.