Jonathan Kim is an independent film critic who writes and produces film reviews for Uprising and other outlets. He is a former co-producer at Brave New Films.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson has only made six feature films over sixteen years. But in that time, he’s distinguished himself as perhaps the best of a very strong generation of filmmakers, which includes David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, and arguably Wes Anderson. His latest film, ‘The Master’, was written by PT, is shot in gorgeous 70mm, and is spectacular on every level, signaling the beginning and, in many ways, the end of the Oscar season, since ‘The Master’ already feels like a classic that’s going to be very, very hard to beat.
Set in 1950 at the end of World War II, the film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quill, a troubled sailor who appears to have a form of post-traumatic stress before such things were taken seriously. His erratic, sex-obsessed, sometimes violent behavior and talent for making cocktails out of dangerous household chemicals makes him unable to hold a job, and after being chased from another one, he finds himself stowing away on a boat where a wedding will be taking place.
The father of the bride is Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who describes himself as a writer, a nuclear scientist, and a theoretical philosopher. But as we and Freddie find out, Dodd is the creator of a pseudo-scientific therapy religion based on his book ‘The Cause’, which seeks to wake people to their true selves and help them master their emotions by regressing them back to the womb. In addition to the wedding, the cruise is also for followers to immerse themselves in therapy sessions and lectures, as well as socialize with the charismatic Dodd.
The possibility of addressing Freddie’s many deep-seated problems makes Freddie and Dodd an irresistible match, with Freddie attracted by the chance to find meaning and safety in the unconventional family Dodd has created, while Dodd is fascinated by Freddie’s raw emotions and violent unpredictability, especially when it’s unleashed on critics of the Cause, and sees Freddie as both a surrogate son and the perfect guinea pig. All this takes place under the watchful eye of Dodd’s wife, Peggy (played by Amy Adams), in a Lady Macbeth-type role pulling the strings behind the scenes.
A lot has been said about whether the Cause is code for Scientology. Anderson drew a lot of inspiration from L. Ron Hubbard and the origins of Scientology, but to say that ‘The Master’ is about Scientology misses the point. Post World War II America was filled with people searching for new ways to understand themselves and the world after emerging from a period of horrific slaughter and sacrifice, which also led to the rise of the counterculture, the Beats, and an embrace of eastern religion. And as a personal note, I don’t see Scientology as being better, worse, or crazier than so-called established religions.
The most important thing is that ‘The Master’ is a masterpiece. Every frame of it looks like it should be hanging in a museum. The art direction and costumes beautifully recreate 1950s America while somehow making it seem fresh. And I was very glad to see Anderson continuing his collaboration with Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood on yet another haunting, evocative score.
But at the film’s heart are two jaw-dropping, totally different performances from Phoenix and Hoffman. Phoenix disappears into the role with a transformed voice, gait, and set of mannerisms, and he clearly pushed himself to the edge of his limits to the point that I was worried about both his physical and mental well-being. In contrast, Hoffman is a portrait of controlled charisma and showmanship hiding deep veins of paranoia and insecurity.
Some people find ‘The Master’ and Anderson’s other movies to be confusing and pretentious, but that’s because Anderson makes the movies he wants and allows viewers to make their own conclusions instead of tying everything up with a pretty bow. And by doing so, and taking the time to do it right, Anderson makes some of the most compelling, evocative, and unique films out there, and ‘The Master’ is all those things and more.
‘The Master’ is rated R and is in select theaters now.