There’s no mistaking a P.T. Anderson film when you see one. Vivid, sonic, provocative, weird and frequently unsatisfying. The Master is his latest foray into the deep regions of culture and individual human behavior. The picture opens on an active beach with Freddie Quell (Jauquin Phoenix) lying on freshly raked sand opening coconuts with a machete and obviously deep in thought. It’s the end of WWII and Freddie, a seaman, takes one more pass by the Navy doctors who are trying to figure out if they should let Freddie back into the wilds of society. A Rorschach test administered early on in the film gives us more information then we care to know about how his mind works. They let him go, but in my opinion he’s so not ready. Perhaps he was never ready for anything.
Mr. Anderson brings great dramatic courage to his script and direction of The Master. Our introduction to Freddie Quell in the first two reels is required. An eccentric young man who makes it through the war and begins his civilian career as a portrait maker in a department store. There he coverts with the help and picks fights with the patrons. His darkroom is as much about mixing home made hooch as it is developing film. Eventually he moves on to work in the vast fields of California. Beheading orbs of cabbage and getting drunk on paint thinner mixed with who knows what. Mr. Phoenix carries himself in a physically awkward manner, which perfectly matches his delivery of the lines he’s given by Mr. Anderson. Left arm bent and perched on his hip and high wasted pants. He’s in search of something but seems so completely lost you get the feeling he’ll never find it.
By an act of fate he boards a ship exiting the harbor and heading out to sea. The vessel was leased by one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as the venue for his daughter’s wedding and a trip through the Suez Canal to the east cost of the United States. Dodd catches the stowaway Quell and invites him into his cult-like lair. The scenes between Phoenix and Hoffman are nearly worth the ticket price. The appear to be completely opposed, but surprisingly alike. Dodd comments on how familiar Freddie looks. Dodd is the founder of The Cause, a philosophy positing that humans today are asleep. The only way to wake them is to use processing methods and applications to reveal derailed past lives and get back on a new path stabilizing the current existence leading one to happiness.
Above all I am a man, A hopelessly inquisitive man. —Lancaster Dodd
Throughout the picture we hear Johnny Greenwood’s (Radiohead fame) score punctuating the atmosphere and driving the mood even further into the corners of reality, as if we needed more help in that department. The music often overlaps with the dialogue adding another element one has to decode.
So… The Cause. Dodd has captivated a group of people across the United States with his methods and promises of happiness. But is The Cause a religion or a parlor trick? As he traverses the country he is at once welcomed by believers and challenged by skeptics, even arrested by the Philadelphia police. Dodd has written a book detailing his Cause and is looking to publish a second volume, hoping to catapult him into the legion of great thinkers.
The Master arrives at an interesting time. Certainly America has had our share of cults and splinter-religion groups. Some have connected The Master to Scientology, founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1952. I have no idea if Mr. Anderson was thinking about this when he wrote the script or not. Nor do I think it matters. This picture stands squarely at the corner of interesting and fascinating, but in the end it doesn’t really give us much to relate to.
The strength of the film lies in its art. Bold writing is the hero here with virtuoso performances by Phoenix and Hoffman. Phoenix combines his personal delivery with physical quirks to create an off balance and somewhat frightening character. Hoffman broods and poses and is the perfect blend of professor and orator. HIs voice calms, but his singing needs some work. Amy Adams turns in good work as Dodd’s wife who we learn is a very strong woman behind The Cause.
The official web site is a very different execution for a feature film. Once you get past the commercials for Dustin Stanton’s posters and such, there are simply six videos to watch. It seems fitting.
Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company