The Master | Movie review
Paul Thomas Anderson's otherworldly vision screened in 70mm at the Toronto International Film Festival.
With World War II at an end, an officer speaks to his soon-to-be-discharged troops. The men are bereft of companionship; many suffer from PTSD. Yet they’re exhorted to rejoin life, to start a business, to live the American Dream. “Undoubtedly, there will be people on the outside who will not understand the condition that you have,” he says.
Are we those people? Steeling yourself for incomprehension is a good way to prepare for Paul Thomas Anderson’s long-anticipated The Master, a dense, baffling, thoroughly original epic that seems to divide viewers on the simple question of what it’s supposed to be about. Fittingly for a movie set inside a cult known as “the Cause”—which, with its emphasis on past lives and “processing” interrogations, is quite blatantly inspired by Scientology—it’s a film that makes its own rules, as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s spiritual guru, Lancaster Dodd, endeavors to bring Joaquin Phoenix’s alcoholic ex–Navy man, Freddie Quell, into the fold.
Even the cinematography doesn’t follow convention. It’s significant that Anderson, shooting in the borderline-obsolete 70mm format, has crafted a movie in which every frame shimmers with a tantalizing, otherworldly quality. Projected at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Master looked as startlingly vivid as any movie I can remember. Chicagoans, alas, won’t be able to share the privilege of seeing it in that format when the movie opens locally September 21; the Music Box, the only 70mm-capable theater in town, was denied a print, but the venue hopes to show an encore run this winter.
Whether it means holding out until then or spending a weekend out of town, you should see The Master big. The movie is primarily a sensory experience: You could spend an entire first viewing tuning out the dialogue, just admiring the immaculate ’50s suits or the way the camera dollies around a mink-coat model sashaying through a department store. Jonny Greenwood’s score is a fugue of unease, alternating Beatnik bass plucks with discordant woodwinds.
The music seems a correlative to Freddie’s personality. Arms on hips in a way that scarcely seems commensurate with human skeletal structure, he’s half cool cat, half constantly on the verge of exploding. Freddie at first copes well enough with the outside, taking a job as a portrait photographer. But after an act of violence sends him drifting through California, Freddie stows away on the Cause’s ship. Lancaster (known as “Master” to everyone on board) enjoins him to stay, but warns him at the outset that his “memories aren’t invited.” Soon this impish, circus-huckster charlatan talks Freddie into doing some “informal processing”—perhaps filling the void the lack of military leadership has opened.
If Lancaster’s greed and lust for power unavoidably recalls Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, in some ways a closer counterpart to The Master is the director’s Boogie Nights—another period drama about American outcasts who share a mutual, utopian delusion. Like Boogie’s protagonist, Phoenix’s character—introduced humping a giant woman-shaped sand castle and jerking off into the ocean—thinks with his dick first. Clearly part of his attraction to the cult is the seeming availability of willing, smiling women.
Pivoting on the pas de deux between Hoffman’s alpha dog and Phoenix’s volatile henchman-in-training, The Master becomes more hallucinatory as it proceeds—most frighteningly as Lancaster’s wife (Amy Adams), whose loyalty to the Cause may exceed even her husband’s, attempts to test Freddie’s devotion with a series of inscrutable mind exercises.
Cinema as thought experiment, The Master is about many things: the nature of communities, the fate of mentally ill veterans (an old noir theme), even the cinema itself. Phoenix’s career-making performance is basically a reptilian variation on the Brando archetype, and Freddie—who name-checks Doris Day and at one point hides out in a movie theater—may well be a cinephile of sorts. Films, like cults, traffic in shared illusions. The Master, flouting expectations at every turn, seems to have come up with a vision worth believing in.
The Master opens in Chicago on September 21.