Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) whips up one of his famous homemade cocktails in The Master.
The Master is a story about control, passion, repression, losing oneself, finding oneself, and yes, a cult. But above all, it is the story of a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you will be by the end of Paul Thomas Anderson's sprawling puzzle of a film.
While he coaxes two incredibly dynamic performances out of Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Anderson is working on a whole new level of opaqueness. His direction here is like a cubist's painting. Some will see a masterpiece worthy of comparisons to Picasso (or in this case, Kubrick), while others will see incongruity—squiggly lines, if you will—and scream "What's the fuss?"
Neither view is wrong, incidentally, as The Master proves both a captivating and frustratingly chilly work of art from the man who brought us the infinitely more captivating There Will Be Blood and the infinitely less chilly Punch-Drunk Love. There's something alien about the picture that undeniably leaves something to be desired in the moment. But the subsequent food for thought is enough on its own to give the film a pass. Coupled with the aforementioned performances and Anderson's signature technical bravado, there's no debating The Master is a work worthy of Anderson's still blemishless filmography. Narratively, however, it's a big pile of "meh."
Phoenix plays Freddie Quell. We meet the man on the cusp of V-J Day, meaning this sailor is about to find himself out of work and without a real purpose. Freddie gets by for a while thanks to alcohol, but non-toxic libations aren't enough for him, and something he concocts nearly kills a man in the Salinas Valley, so he runs off and ultimately jumps aboard a ship that's just disembarking from San Francisco.
The next day, he learns he's headed for New York in the company of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), as well as the man's friends and family (including a daughter who's hours away from getting married). Dodd is immediately drawn to Quell, and he promises that if Freddie can manage to whip up a few more of his homemade "potions" over the course of the journey, Lancaster will ensure he's fed and given the same hospitality as the rest of the guests. It's an easy agreement for Freddie to make—after all, he doesn't have anything or anyone else—but he does end up getting a little more than he bargained for.
Lancaster is a writer (as well as a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, and a man) who focuses on original teachings related to past lives and achieving a certain state of perfection as a species. Freddie represents perhaps his toughest challenge yet, as the drifter's animalistic tendencies are worn like a badge of honor. And in Lancaster, Freddie has a mentor, a friend who can guide him toward some kind of fulfillment. It's seems like a perfect match, but with two individuals this headstrong, there's no avoiding trouble.
The problem with the film is that, while it's thematically richer than anything we've seen this year, it doesn't really move at all. We know a lot about these individuals and what makes each man tick (especially Freddie), but Anderson elects to stand back and let them play off each other in ways that are interesting enough for thirty minutes, maybe an hour. As the film approaches its 120-minute mark and Freddie and Lancaster are still the same people acting out in the same ways, restlessness will set in. It's human nature to want to be moving, and the film actually touches on that to a degree, but The Master as a whole stays curiously still. It's like a big, gorgeous ship that was built to sail the high seas but is stuck in port instead.
That said, it's a tough film to shake. Because Anderson leaves so much unexplained, it's all up for grabs once the lights go up. Even the film's title is worth debating. Who is the Master? Because Lancaster lords over a whole clan of people, and because the film's posters and marketing materials were framed around a Freddie-taken portrait of Lancaster, Anderson sets us up to believe this title belongs to Hoffman's character. But the opposite is probably true. The film plays out more like a gay romance than anything else with Lancaster falling much harder for Freddie than Freddie does Lancaster. Only the film's closing moments bring this brilliant bait-and-switch to light, and the lilting sounds of Helen Forrest's "Changing Partners" take us out as we contemplate the possibility that this story continues on in a heartbreaking direction.
As one might expect, the film is masterfully crafted. Jonny Greenwood's original score perfectly reflects the meandering nature of Freddie's life. The film's production design is quintessential 1950s. The editing is always surprising.
And the cinematography vacillates between severe and dreamlike. Anderson and his cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare Jr., are clearly having fun with the film's visual presentation. During one moment, Freddie, at a party, fantasizes that all the women are nude. They sing and dance alongside Lancaster; It's an incredibly surreal moment. Not long after, we get a total 180 of a scene in a jail, where the two principals occupy adjacent cells and an extreme close-up of one of the cell bars frames their intense shouting match. In another scene, Lancaster "processes" Freddie and informs him he must answer a series of emotionally draining questions without blinking. Neither does the camera while he answers and tears stream down Joaquin Phoenix's craggily face.
The Master is full of dynamic scenes like these (see also Freddie's fight with a customer in a department store), but too often, they don't build to anything. It's two hours of watching larger-than-life personalities bouncing off one another, which is more than enough to keep one's attention, but as a coherent film, The Master comes up short. Joaquin's physicality is brilliant, as is controlled fury Phillip Seymour Hoffman brings to the role of Lancaster. Amy Adams, as Lancaster's wife Peggy, doesn't have the meatiest role, but she shines in moments—just like the film around her. For a man like Anderson—a man many have understandably called the best director of his generation—"shines in moments" is faint praise.
Many will unquestionably (and understandably) eat up what this cinematic chef puts in front of them. I found the dish a little overcooked, overseasoned, and underwhelming, but it filled me up all the same.