Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” plays like some kind of lucid dream constantly threatening to turn violent and ugly and horrible while lulling you into a beautiful trance. Everything from the flow of the cinematography to the lighting to the music seems to hint at it. It never does, however, entirely commit to the good or the bad. The audience, like the main character, Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix in what I think is an award-worthy performance), is stuck in the neither here nor there. A kind of inescapable purgatory.
Set at the end of World War II, “The Master” centers on the journey of an alcoholic Naval seaman, Freddie Quell. As the war draws to a close, Freddie is set adrift, if you will, into a world he no longer recognizes or is able to inhabit. Hinting at post-traumatic stress disorder as a likely cause, Freddie’s character unravels at breakneck speed. His failure to adapt to post-war society drives Freddie from job to job until finally, he stumbles aboard a chartered cruise headed to New York.
Onboard, he wakes the morning after, unaware of what has transpired the night before. Freddie, who has a penchant and talent for creating different varietals of moonshine, has been discovered by the ship’s “commander” a man known as The Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Bewitched by the strange concoction he’s found on Freddie’s person, he admits to having finished the contents of Freddie’s flask. He agrees to let Freddie stay on the condition he is able to reproduce the concoction at will. Freddie agrees.
The troubled Freddie is immediately put at ease by The Master, a man named Lancaster Dodd, who is a self-proclaimed philosophical leader of a new religious movement referred to only as “The Cause”. You will see tinges of Scientology at play here, but the relationship is but inspired by the religion. There is no intentional or historical link between the two in so much as the writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has said on the matter. In fact, the character of Freddie seems to have been hobbled together and/or inspired by stories told the director from Jason Robards about the years he served in the Navy during the war.
The film is semi-hypnotic in nature, with a persistent but non-insistent flow that makes the 2 and 1/2-hour long film move effortlessly forward. One is not even immediately aware of the passage of time except if paying attention to the size of Mary Sue Dodd’s (Amy Adams) pregnant belly. Freddie commits himself to the treatments prescribed by The Master in an attempt to stop drinking, be at peace, and become whole once more. As the time passes and the lack of improvement begins to show, Freddie becomes unable to contain his drinking or his anger putting him at odds with the family that constitutes “The Cause”.
During a final exercise, The Master takes Freddie to the desert. He tells him to pick a point and ride a motorcycle to it as fast as he can. Freddie hops on, selects his point and sets off, gaining speed and vanishing beyond the horizon. He’s made his decision and finally abandoned The Cause and The Master. Adrift, once more, and still as broken and aimless as he was before.
“The Master” is an elegantly tortured character drama. Joaquin Phoenix stars in his first major role since the whole “I’m Still Here” performance piece nearly destroyed him and his career. His performance as Freddie Quell is raw and vulnerable, with a power behind it that refuses to be overlooked. I’m certain it will be among the most acclaimed roles of the actor’s career. A must-see for fans of the genre or any of the actors, even if you wait for it on DVD.
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Official site: The Master Official Site