Paul Thomas Anderson is the closest thing we have to an established, proven and, above all, dedicated art-house director. All the tell-tale signs are there — we frequently find him bitching about how it’s a pain to secure any form of funding, he casually curses in the middle of interviews and lastly, he’s made arguably the best pieces of American cinema in the past decade. The most significant of those is “There Will Be Blood,” a spellbinding epic with which Anderson was able to force his audience into the depraved mind of a maniac.
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And as we sat there and watched, Anderson slowly suffocated us with the tension and unease he quietly used to weave together his masterpiece. In short, it was the type of filmmaking that changes one’s perception of what a movie can do. Anderson’s latest film, “The Master,” never reaches the heights he was able to achieve in “Blood.” It is in most senses a weaker film, but nevertheless still an amazing movie that has the capability to engross and challenge a patient audience.
The movie opens on a shot of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, “Gladiator”) pretending to have sex with a sand sculpture on a military base in post-WWII Guam. After a few psychiatric evaluations, it’s made clear that Quell is a very disturbed individual battling with alcoholism — not even the most significant of his many self-destructive tendencies. As Quell struggles to come to terms with the normality of life after living in a state of constant war, he begins making his own alcohol — by combining paint thinner with hard liquor.
Ultimately, he catches the interest of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, “Moneyball”), a charismatic and magnetically compelling individual who claims to know the secret to curing Quell of his desperate dependence on destructive behavior. Dodd peddles his “process” to a cult of followers only identified as “The Cause.” As the film gradually hones in on the volatile relationship between Quell and Dodd, Anderson lets go of the reins and allows the actors to dictate the flow of the movie.
It’s also at this point that “The Master” becomes probably the best movie released so far this year. Much like “There Will Be Blood” was Daniel Day-Lewis’s film, “The Master” belongs to Phoenix and Seymour Hoffman. The performances they deliver are nothing short of extraordinary and serve as perfect foils to each other. On the one hand, there’s Phoenix’s visceral, carnally violent embodiment of a man tormented by his own ineptitudes. At its core, the rawness that Phoenix brings to his portrayal of Freddie Quell gives him the emotional composure of a parentless child or caged animal.
On the other end of the spectrum is Lancaster Dodd, a man so in love with the idea of being in absolute control that he attempts to use Quell as proof that his “process” is valid. When things quickly get out of hand, Dodd’s fractured personality surfaces and Seymour Hoffman subtly molds it in a way that incites deep feelings of self-doubt in anyone watching.
That ability to force audience members to look inward and question the self is classic Paul Thomas Anderson, who has made a career out of doing character studies of deeply troubled men. Even if it isn’t a masterpiece, it has what we’ve come to expect from Anderson — a deep and thoroughly fleshed-out vision that grips and rattles our core until we see things a little differently. And when all’s said and done, that’s what meaningful cinema is really about.