Review by Will Noah

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Equal parts sinister and sensual, The Master, the latest film by Paul Thomas Anderson, stakes out its territory at the halfway point of the Twentieth Century.  Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, a veteran of the Pacific whose unspecified psychic wounds send him reeling into the daylight of postwar America.  The film’s early passages, which find Quell moving from job to job while knocking back concoctions of hard liquor mixed with paint thinner and photo chemicals, establish the rhythms of Anderson’s shooting and editing.  Patient but never long-winded, The Master’s pacing results in a suspended slow burn, the film’s vision taking shape deliberately but inscrutably.  Quell’s wayward binge results in a chance encounter with Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), leader of a religious cult known only as “The Cause”.  Dodd adopts Quell as a follower in a manner that contains shades of eroticism as well as a paternal quality.  From there on out, The Master offers little in the way of plot. Instead, Anderson allows the relationship between the two men to play out both as character study and as a larger investigation of the gravitational pull exerted by institutions and personalities.

One might expect based on the scope of Anderson’s last film, 2007’s There Will Be Blood, as well as the use here of the 65mm shooting format, that The Master would shoot for spectacle on a grand scale.  This assumption is quickly overturned by the decision to elide any depiction of Quelll’s war experience.  Instead of a traumatic battle scene, Anderson begins the film with a sequence in which Quell masturbates on the beach.  The rest of the film proceeds along these lines, setting up expectations of grandeur only to deflate them with absurdity.  The Master also eschews epic vistas in favor of the close-up, which dominates the film’s emotional idiom. Anderson’s camera interrogates the faces of his characters in search of some kind of orgasmic rupture of their social facades. Just as Dodd orders Quell not to blink during one of the movie’s best scenes, Anderson puts his characters through an emotional wringer, seeking to open up cracks in their personalities.  He is aided in this goal enormously by his three lead actors, each of whom embody their roles with enormous confidence and expressive range. Hoffman’s sly and charismatic performance demands multiple viewings to disclose its warring currents of charisma, impulsiveness, absurdity, and longing. Amy Adams, playing Dodd’s wife, continues to demolish her cutesy screen persona with a shockingly forceful performance.  Despite playing one of the movie’s strongest scenes together (greatest handjob scene in cinema history? Discuss), Adams and Hoffman can’t help but wind up in the shadow, however, of Joaquin Phoenix, whose unhinged Quell offers the viewer the quickest way into the film.  Phoenix’s jutting elbows and wrinkled forehead alone express more amusement, pain, ecstasy, and lust than most actors’ entire beings. Any wartime trauma is alluded to only glancingly, but Phoenix’s performance speaks volumes of its own: Freddie Quell is not just a man, but a gaping wound standing in for midcentury America as well.

Quell and Dodd believe on some level that each has something to offer the other, yet no exchange is ever articulated. Quell mixes Dodd batches of near-poisonous booze; Dodd forces Quell through inscrutable tests and tasks.  Quell searches for satisfaction by lashing out physically; Dodd searches for meaning by speechifying, yet his theories seem to change at the drop of a hat, explained only by reference to some obscure “new data.”  Is Dodd’s system meant to stand in for all schools of 20th century thought that pursued the mad dream of human perfectibility?  Anderson certainly leaves room for this line of interpretation, but seems more interested in the roles of leader and follower.  The Master brings a dose of skepticism to its investigation of institutions and ideological groups of all kinds, emphasizing the form of such organizations over their content. The first interrogation scenes we witness are not within the confines of The Cause, but are administered by Navy psychologists.  Freud is invoked not for his theories of the subconscious, but by the film’s repetition and mutation of his talking cure.  Like Freud, however, The Master has sex on the mind.  The film opens with masturbation and ends with intercourse, and pulses with a dull lust in between.  Quell’s last encounter with Dodd finds servant and master parting with indenture still unconsummated, followed by a scene in which Dodd’s institutional language is repurposed to fit explicitly erotic ends.  It’s a sneaky way to end an epic, or rather an anti-epic, by closing the iris on an individual’s sex life, but Anderson’s ambitions have always had an inward-looking quality.  Even as it stretches its vision across a 65mm canvas, The Master remains most concerned with the ache of the human heart, as well as that of man’s more vulgar anatomy.