The Master – A reaction from the Chicago screening

(NOTE: Though specific plot points aren't discussed, a number of the thematic issues that the movie raises are, which you may or may not consider spoilers. Proceed with caution.)

Though I’ve never been as great a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson as many cinephiles, it’s almost impossible not to at least appreciate the level of ambition on which his movies work. Gorgeously framed and plotted shots, performances that go big but avoid being hollow, and almost always an attempt to say something about the human condition. It’s on that last one that he tends to lose me, especially on his last venture There Will Be Blood, which tries to say something about the drive of Corporate America while tying it into our nation’s relationship with religion, but that statement never quite came together for me and ultimately left the film feeling incomplete.

Anderson’s new film, The Master, returns to that topic of religion, but this time goes for something much more broad, and ultimately more intriguing: the connection between religion and how we use it to tame our most brutal, perverted and animalistic qualities. Like Anderson’s other movies it goes for its themes with the subtlety of a bowling pin to the head, but this is also possibly Anderson’s most consistently off-the-wall and insane movie yet. Where Blood was a slow simmer with occasional bursts of insanity before exploding in a giddy, meme-creating finale, The Master goes for that level of crazy early and often, and becomes his most entertaining movie to date.

The ringleader of this circus is Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie, giving a performance that’s part Marlon Brando, part Homer Simpson, part rabid dog. The opening scenes are used mainly to establish as much as possible about this character, not that there’s much to him. He’s an alcoholic, often-horny seaman trying to adjust to post-WWII life without much success. He seems to be mentally ill in some manner, completely lacking in inhibition and an understanding of basic social skills. He spends much time wandering and making a show of himself before literally wandering onto the private boat of Lancaster Dodd (also referred to, and credited as, The Master), played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The two are introduced to each other, and Dodd takes Freddie in as a disciple to his budding religion, referred to simply as The Cause.

Much has already been made of how the movie uses L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology as a direct basis for Dodd and The Cause, but the movie isn’t quite satirizing Scientology on its own, but religion as a whole, or any attempt to tame and conquer our most ruthless tendencies. Though I normally don’t like directly stating subtext, that’s about the level of subtlety with which Anderson handles this observation. The word “animalistic” is thrown around often enough that it doesn’t take long to realize that Freddie might not be mentally ill, but just the embodiment of the most base instincts of human beings.

It's because of this that Phoenix is able to get away with such a twitchy and out-there performance, mumbling out half of his lines in an incomprehensible manner as he lumbers around the screen. Most of Freddie’s behavior is antisocial, and the few glimpses into his mind show that there isn’t much going on in there, but unlike almost all the other characters in the film he’s still straightforward and genuine in his actions, as awful and violent as they can be. With a lesser actor that last part could have been lost, but Phoenix is so committed to these facets that it’s hard not to empathize with him throughout the film. (There's also a flashback to a pre-war romance with a kind high school girl, though it doesn't leave much of an impression despite tying into one of the movie's best moments.)

When Dodd takes Freddie in (it’s here that the "Master" title develops a somewhat twisted double meaning), he tries to help Freddie through his issues. He succeeds enough that Freddie swears complete loyalty to The Master without ever appearing to understand what The Cause is really about, literally attacking anyone who voices their criticism or disdain for The Cause or The Master. Even as Freddie and Dodd grow close though, it’s the conflict between them that drives the film. Where Freddie doesn’t seem particularly motivated to change, Dodd has deluded himself to believe that he can drive those qualities out of anyone and make the world a better place. Unfortunately, almost every attempt at a significant breakthrough for Freddie is shot down by Freddie's own obliviousness to the world. (Going back to that Homer Simpson comparison, there's one extended montage that reminded me of the first act of The Simpsons' own Scientology satire, "The Joy of Sect," in which the persistence of a cult is shot down by the stupid/smartness of their attempted recruit.)

Hoffman has always been a pretty broad actor, but that comes in handy here because Dodd is a very hammy person, trying to play the role of calm, helping savior even as it becomes obvious he’s little more than a con man with his own anger issues. I also don't want to leave out Amy Adams, playing Dodd's wife as someone who is content to stay in the background like a good wife, but has just as much ambition, perhaps even more, than her husband regarding how to make The Cause grow and overcome its detractors. If her hard-as-nails performance in The Fighter didn't convince people that she could play rough-and-mean, there are a couple of scenes here that might do the trick.

Though I’ve barely touched on the technical aspects of the movie, that’s hardly because they aren’t worth discussing. There’s already been a lot of hype about the 70mm presentation of the film, and the format does indeed do the movie proud. From the opening shot of churning ocean waters behind a moving boat (a shot that is used throughout the movie), the camera work is nothing short of astounding, as photographed by first-time Anderson collaborator Mihai Malaimare Jr. (sure to become an A-list DP after this). The 70mm format not only allows for gorgeous shots, but also makes one appreciate all the more Anderson’s talent for framing and plotting his long takes throughout the picture. Production design by Jack Fisk is also excellent, subtle work capturing a very 1950s feel, from Dodd’s boat to a department store that Freddie works at early in the movie.

And despite all this discussion of religion and human nature, one of the things I take from the film is still how entertaining it all is. Anderson may not tackle his topics and subjects with much subtlety, but watching this movie I realized that he probably doesn’t care about that, so long as he’s attacking these topics in a manner that’s entertaining to him and anyone willing to go along with it. The Master has an amazing sense of humor, both dry and crass (even a couple of fart jokes), and after a while I found myself anticipating, almost with glee, every time Freddie would take center stage, simply because he becomes such an unpredictable force that you never know what’s going to happen. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give this movie is that it’s the first Anderson film I’ve wanted to watch again not because I thought I missed something, but because I just plain want to enjoy it again.