Paul Thomas Anderson’s film The Master, released in theatres widely today, has already made a considerable splash, garnering both praise and puzzlement. The film earned two top prizes at the Venice Film Festival, including for best director, and has set art-house box-office records in limited release in Los Angeles and New York.
Those ticket sales reflect the strength of pent-up audience demand for the first film in five years from Anderson, the much-admired director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. While reviews have been generally positive, there have been some prominent dissenters. “There Will be Dud” reads the headline in David Thompson’s review in The New Republic. Time magazine critic Richard Schikel ranks The Master as “between a disappointment and a disaster” and suggests that other critics’ investment in the cult of P.T. Anderson’s career has blinded them to the movie’s faults.
Should we be skeptical of that skepticism? Anderson has never been everyone’s favourite. Even There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s most commercially successful film – which earned eight Oscar nominations including wins for cinematography and best actor for Daniel Day Lewis – didn’t crack $50-million at the North America box office. Like Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Anderson’s latest is enigmatic. But if you have eyes and can see, The Master it is unmistakably some kind of wonder. At least, it’s an exhilarating demonstration of big-screen moviemaking in dreamlike colours and a sense-heightening 70-mm format. Beyond that, the two lead actors, Joaquin Phoenix as the primitive acolyte and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the decadent teacher, play their roles with such idiosyncratic energy, that they suggest duelling Brandos.
More than that, there’s Anderson’s obvious authorial maturity. The wunderkind who started off his career combining stories of naive sincerity with dazzling demonstrations of cinematic theft (of David Mamet’s terse dialogue in Hard Eight, Martin Scorsese’s swooping camera in Boogie Nights, Robert Altman’s multi-strand ensemble style in Magnolia ) and has settled in for the same Kubrickian monumentality that characterized There Will Be Blood. Also similarly, it’s a film about the forces that shape modern America.
The astonishingly kinetic first 20 minutes introduce us to the unbalanced world of Freddie Quell. Phoenix, with his hair slicked back in a pompadour, looks a little like Montgomery Clift with a leering grin, hunched shoulders and limbs that might flail in any direction. Freddie gets drunk on torpedo engine fuel, grinds atop a sand mound shaped like a naked woman on the beach (a From Here to Eternity quote?) and masturbates into the ocean. Upon being discharged from the army, he’s diagnosed with a nervous disorder but, after brief treatment, pops up again at a fancy department store as the in-house photographer.
His respectability is short-lived: After seducing a model, he loses his temper with a well-heeled, middle-aged male customer, resulting in an alarming slapstick melee that leaves the customers shocked and Freddie on the run.
In his next job, chopping cabbages in California, he kills one of his co-workers with his homemade hootch and hightails it to San Francisco. Drunk, he sneaks aboard an elegant party yacht at night, which is lit like an enchanted floating lantern. (Romanian cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. worked on Frances Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth, Tetro and Twixt ). The beautiful ship slips under the Golden Gate Bridge, bound for New York by way of Panama, and in the morning, the hungover Freddie has a new friend.
The plump, courtly stranger is named Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), and he might have stepped out of a latter-day version of Huckleberry Finn: with his pompous introduction: “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man – just like you.”
At which point, you imagine, Freddie should have taken a plunge straight into the deep blue sea, but having nothing else in his life, he hangs around, and the film becomes a subtle immersion into a kind of invented family (like the porn industry gang in Boogie Nights). Dodd is the founder of a movement, The Cause, a philosophy of past-life therapy in which subjects engage in “time mining” to learn about their previous existences and traumas which they must overcome. Dodd’s ship is on a wedding cruise for his daughter, Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) and son-in-law Clark (Rami Malek) along with his wife and steely lieutenant Peggy (Amy Adams), son Val (Jesse Plemons) and other leaders of the movement. Following Dodd’s writings, they’re convinced The Cause can end war, poverty and cancer en route to human perfectibility in about a trillion years or so.
The Master and the misfit talk, and here’s where the film becomes not just visually mesmerizing experience but a mentally compelling one as well. Dodd’s intimate interviews, charged with homoerotic suggestion, are shot with unforgiving close-ups amid rapid-fire interrogations that mix mundane and startling questions: “Do you linger at bus stations for pleasure?” “Do your past failures bother you?” “Have you ever had sex with a family member?”