Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film “The Master” begins on a calm but ominous note. In the opening scenes we meet naval officer Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). He’s currently at sea in the Pacific, during World War 2. And the first five or so minutes of the film consist of Freddie and his fellow sailors passing the time on their Battleship, or on some kind of island beach, joking and mucking around. We don’t see any kind of fighting —not even between the lads—there appears to be no visible danger.
And yet, something’s not quite right. Anderson and his cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. frame each shot in a way that gives you a claustrophobic sensation, the piece of music that plays over the sequence (by Jonny Greenwood who scored the rest of the movie) is a fairly simple instrumental piece—consisting of drums, various strings and a few woodwind instruments—and yet there’s something disturbingly off beat about it, something sinister. Beneath this seemingly tranquil scene of military life, lies a feeling of unease and danger. The scene has a wonderfully rhythmic quality to it, as well as a hypnotic one. It’s so basic, but effective and alive, and it sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
“The Master” is similar to Anderson’s last film, 2007’s “There Will Be Blood” in that they’re both period pieces and they contain so many themes, symbols and other ambiguities, that you have to be fully attentive while viewing it and even then you won’t understand everything on the initial go round. It has multiple gears working on multiple levels. The film is definitely a little bewildering, in fact the movie is so dense that it sort of feels like even Anderson doesn’t quite know what he’s getting at. But the film is still immensely intelligent and in terms of filmmaking alone, it’s a masterpiece.
The movie resumes, post WWII in the 1950’s. Freddie has now been put back in the rat race and, he’s not doing too well. He’s suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. He has wild, erratic behaviors and violent mood swings. Among the movie’s many ideas and surmisings, one that I think stands out is the one I referenced to in the opening paragraphs: A surface-level feeling of normality, with an underlying eeriness. Order and disorder. Everything about “The Master” is so clean and put together. The period décor—the production design by David Crank and Jack Fisk, and the costume design by Mark Bridges—is so very neat, and as it should be. The movie has picture perfect appearance that feels almost too good to be true, like a dream state.
Whatever it is Freddie doesn’t fit in, or at least he’s thought of this observation before, which could explain his behavior. One day while working at his new job as a photographer in a department store he picks a random fight with a well-dressed, wealthy looking man. It’s like he’s trying to tinker with this seamless, orderly society, seeing what will happen if he disrupts it. Phoenix (whose last movie was the awful 2010 mockumentary “I’m Still Here” where he plays a super exaggerated version of himself) sinks right into this role and it’s a role that plays to those crazy, animalistic sensibilities seen in “I’m Still Here.” He plays Freddie with a drunken eccentricity.
After being run out of a few other odd jobs Freddie ends up back on the water on a mysterious passenger boat full of seemingly normal people. It’s here where he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) the leader of a questionable cult called The Cause (it’s similar to Scientology). “The Master” moves at such a slow, leisurely pace, Anderson isn’t in a hurry to go anywhere. Just about all of the individual shots within the movie last no less than a minute. And overall the movie is unwelcoming. I don’t mean that as a flaw necessarily but in the sense that Anderson doesn’t spell things out for the audience. Instead of being a generous man who invites you into his house, he’s like a stubborn old hermit, and you have to go knock on his door and be persistent.
We don’t learn much about The Cause while on this trip, Freddie doesn’t even learn that much. He hangs out and chats with the various members, one of which is Lancaster’s wife Peggy (a creepy Amy Adams) and he has a few drinking sessions with Lancaster. For the most part he remains as an outside observer, looking in at this strange, seemingly blissful world. And that applies to the rest of the movie. Even after Lancaster breaks him down in a lightning round style interview session on board—where we learn about his tortured past—and even when they go back on land, where Freddie continues to spend time with the cult and Lancaster attempts to rehabilitate him with cult tactics, he always retains that outsider status. Phoenix gives a masterful physical performance. He’s always hunched over, his arms usually locked on his sides, in a stiff arch. He resembles a rabid, wounded rat.
Lancaster Dodd is a quintessential cult leader. He’s well dressed, well read, confident, prone to losing his temper, and above all damn charismatic (I don’t think I’ve seen Hoffman this charismatic). The perfect kind of man to prey on the weak minded and lost souls such as Freddie. He always has an answer, always has something to tell Freddie. But, as it usually goes with cults, Lancaster is more of a showman, someone who preaches falsities. If I’ve just spoiled something important, then I apologize but the status of the cult isn’t that big of a revelation.
“The Master” isn’t really about Lancaster or The Cause. It doesn’t explore the politics of cults very often; Anderson doesn’t really take us into the mind of Lancaster. In the end, “The Master” is about Freddie. He’s the major puzzle the audience must solve. He comes off crazy and weak but is he really? Is he more aware and strong willed than he seems? That brings Freddie’s outsider status back into mind. Now, what the final answer to that intricate puzzle is, I don’t have the slightest clue. I don’t think you can know after one seeing.
One thing missing from “The Master” is Anderson’s usual sense of camera movement. Every scene in “The Master” is so staged and calculated and thought out. Everything down to the very last hair atop Lancaster’s slicked back perfect hairdo is accounted for. This isn’t totally a bad thing but Anderson uses movement so well. He achieves a beautiful, eloquent, fluidity, that gave movies like “Boogie Nights” and Magnolia” a real pop. “The Master” doesn’t exactly pop and is a little rigid and oppressive.
Even so, you have to walk away impressed with ‘The Master” in terms of craftsmanship and the amount of substance Anderson packs into his screenplay. Besides the performances and Anderson’s direction, it’s that idea and feeling of order as well as disorder mentioned before that propels “The Master” forward.