“The Master” (2012) Review

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson; Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
[3 out of 4 stars]

In The Master (2012), director Paul Thomas Anderson brings two men into a chaotic tale of a fool and the fool who follows him. The latter is Freddie Quell (played expertly by Joaquin Phoenix), a lewd and alcoholic young WWII navy veteran with a penchant for substituting the usual cocktail fixings for what appear to be paint thinner, photo lab chemicals, and something from a medicine cabinet that’s probably stronger than mouthwash. After getting fired from a few odd jobs, he stumbles across the other man: Lancaster Dodd, or The Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who appears sane but is the only one who seems to like Freddie’s poisons as much as he does. The two seem to simply drift together and apart like leaves floating downstream, their separate journeys only sometimes influenced by each other. 

The Master, in his own words, is “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, and a theoretical philosopher, but above all […] a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man.” In my words, he’s an abusive cult leader whose psychological preachings – mysteriously called “the Cause” – lead to an understanding of the world as toxic as Freddie’s drinks. The Master believes that our emotions (and souls) are the products of past lives, and this rests on an idea of trauma that is both Jungian and mystical; his tirades against “animal” emotions in opulent New York parlors are ironically juxtaposed with a shouting fit directed at a woman (Laura Dern) who innocently questions a change in one of his books. The real tragedy of The Master is that when Freddie looks for a leader, he finds a man more confused and angry than himself. 

Hoffman plays these scenes masterfully, navigating between charisma and ire with ease, but more often than not, I found myself impatient for the camera to pan back to Freddie. This has less to do with any failure on Hoffman’s part than the fact that Phoenix, turning in the best performance of his career, steals every scene from him. Even in the best scenes, when The Master is “processing” Freddie – i.e., asking and repeating personal questions about who he is, what he has felt in his life, and what he can imagine – the escalating pathos always plays in Phoenix’s favor. Hoffman lends these questions gravity and intensity, and Freddie, normally so able to ignore those around him, is unable to look away. The viewer, in turn, is transfixed. If you want to understand how we got from one of cinematic history’s hollowest performances in Gladiator (2002) to his Oscar-winning role in Joker (2019), look no further than Phoenix’s drunken ravings here: laughter and tears, a trembling lip that only opens on one side, and a quavering voice that expresses more than the actual words. Although the precise source of Freddie’s trauma is never fully revealed, it is clear in these scenes that he bears the scars of childhood. We know that Freddie’s father was an alcoholic, that his mother is in a “loony bin,” and that he has had incestuous relations with an aunt who “looked good” one day when he was drunk. Does he carouse because of childhood trauma or because of something he saw during the war? Do these experiences feed off of each other? It is the genius of Phoenix’s performance that we can never be quite sure. 

Although Phoenix and Hoffman are the definitive stars, The Master has a supporting cast no one could scoff at. We get an impassioned performance from Amy Adams as The Master’s wife, Peggy, reminiscent of her role in The Fighter (2010). I never quite knew what to make of her character. On the one hand, her commitment to “the Cause” is frighteningly sincere; she seems captivated by The Master’s imagination. On the other hand, I often had the distinct impression – perhaps based on the calm and discipline she exudes next to the two men – that she was the true mastermind of the organization. She seems to have a power over both of them, urging them to stop drinking Freddie’s toxic substances. In her final appearance, asking Freddie if he can remain committed to the Cause, it seems to be her question that brings closure to the film’s driftings, and she does this in that characteristically effortless way that makes you forget she’s even acting.

The Master doesn’t quite live up to some of Paul Thomas Anderson’s other works. Perhaps he was letting Phoenix and Hoffman do their thing, but I found myself missing the explicit attention to physical detail we get in The Phantom Thread (2017). Anderson attempts this same level of detail at points, but there are few truly memorable shots. (And the ones that are – like the bright blue sea churned up behind a ship – are memorable only because he repeats them throughout the film.) Most noticeable, however, is the lack of climax: there is no central, milkshake moment that gives There Will Be Blood (2007) such a satisfying resolve, no moment of finality. Anderson fans can probably ignore this film; watch The Master for Phoenix, Hoffman, and Adams instead.

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