Director Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the greatest American filmmakers of all time. After watching The Master, I am absolutely confident in writing that statement. The film is another masterpiece, both in terms of what it says, and in terms of what it does not say. One of the most frustrating elements I find in going to the theater today is that almost everyone insists on spelling out exactly what they are trying to say, as though the audiences’ minds have been replaced by turnips. Anderson wants everyone to make up their own mind. Not everyone will “get” it; an older couple behind me insisted that this was the “strangest film they had ever seen.” But for many people, The Master will be one of the great film experiences they have all year.
The film opens with a group of World War II sailors, on a beach. One of them passes the time by making a sand sculpture of a naked woman. This is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), and he is already a severely broken man. When the war ends, Quell takes on a series of jobs, including a photographer at a department store and share cropper. But he is drifting through life drinking his own poisonous moonshine. One evening, in a drunken stupor, he manages to sneak aboard a yacht being piloted by Lanchaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is the founder of “The Cause,” a technique in which undergo participants undergo a form of regression therapy that seeks to eliminate their “trillions of years of suffering.” (“That’s trillion with a T,” Dodd tells one skeptic.) Quell immediately joins the movement, but slowly turns away after coming to the conclusion that the techniques cannot heal his deep wounds.
Many people will expect The Master to be a revealing critique of Scientology. It is not. Granted, The Cause shares some tenents with the controversial cult. Chief among The Cause’s practices is the “processing” technique, which resembles Scientology’s “auditing.” But the movement also shares traits and beliefs with the Heaven’s Gate cult (particularly the idea of the human body being an imperfect vessel for pure spirits). One scene even takes place in what I can only describe as an evangelical Christian revivalist meeting, with Dodd taking on the role of the preacher who promises truth. You want an attack on Scientology? Then go re-watch the famous South Park episode “Trapped in the Closet.” You will not find what you are looking for in The Master.
Such a portrait of an entire organization would have been out of step for Anderson anyway. His modus operandi has been an in-depth examination of seemingly normal human desires and how frustrating and damaging they can be in the wrong circumstances. To whit, the desire for fame in Boogie Nights, the desire for success in There Will Be Blood, the desire to be noticed and remembered in Magnolia, and the desire to receive any sort of affection in Punch Drunk Love. With The Master, the theme is the desire to belong. The Cause could be any cult in the 20th century; The Master is merely a reflection of how people are entranced to join them. Anderson does not label those who join as gullible fools, but as broken people who need help. Does The Cause help its members? Well, it does affect them in some way. But exactly how it affects them is up to the people who are watching The Master.
The most minute details of Anderson’s direction emphasize this theme of changing perception. Most of the cinematography focuses on the faces of people as someone off camera speaks. This choice is meant to emphasize how Dodd’s words (and The Cause) affect people. He also allows for certain minute changes (including a scene involving the changing of an eye color, which will probably become famous) to emphasize how The Cause can subtly influence people over to its way of thinking. And there is a bizarre song and dance scene in which we are allowed to see Dodd’s seduction of the female members of the movement through Quell’s eyes and…well, I dare not reveal what he sees. But it is all masterful film-making that explores a man searching for his place in the world. It’s one of the few films released this where audiences are truly invited to see the world through another man’s eyes.
But, honestly, the real standout of The Master is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Quell. I know many people felt that I’m Still Here was a terrible joke that (unintentionally) destroyed Phoenix’s career. Indeed, this is the first film he’s done since that largely disastrous mockumentary. But his performance in The Master is probably the best performance of the year. Quell is largely a drifter who cannot form a coherent sentence or thought. He fights with everyone, but in a largely haphazard way that seems to indicate he is punching at unseen phantoms. The people who are hit by Quell’s blows are merely in the way. Phoenix mumbles his lines and keeps the same detached facial expression throughout the film. He flies between rage and detachment so easily that I am almost tempted to recommend Phoenix take a good antidepressant. Perhaps the aforementioned I’m Still Here was practice for this role? Phoenix manages to effortless find that extension between himself and Quell. If he is not nominated for an Oscar, then several AMPAS members should be forced to resign.
I’ve only discussed a few of the best moments, and really, I am just getting started. I could spend a thousand words or more discussing the homoeroticism between Dodd and Quell. So, before I get carried away, I will close here by saying The Master may very well be the best film of 2012. I can understand why some people may not enjoy it. It is not the hard-hitting critique of cults almost everyone would want a work based on the tenants of Scientology to be. But that was never Anderson’s intention, any more than Boogie Nights was meant to encourage everyone to join the anti-pornography movement. Rather, it is a masterful story about a man who cannot find the answers he desperately needs.