A lot of guys came back from the war a little messed up, but what messed up Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) must have started long before he went to sea. He father died from drink and his mother wound up institutionalized; now Freddie boozes with an uncommon passion for oblivion and responds to the world with equal parts naïveté and rage. In early scenes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master we see Freddie drain something out of a torpedo and a little later get creative with darkroom fluids. He’s poisoning himself—and others—for shits and giggles. He can make some kind of barely digestible homebrew out of just about anything; this is one of Freddie’s genuine talents, the other being portrait photography, though he loses his first postwar department store job when he gets into a fight with a customer for no apparent reason, other than the acceleration of the inevitable. The Master is, among other things, a portrait of Freddie; so much of this picture is made of portraits, haunting images of eyes and mouths, heads and shoulders, necklines and hairlines, captured by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare in gorgeous, dizzyingly detail-saturated 65mm images, that at times mirror the softening gaze of its deranged central character, that render every wrinkle, blink and lip-tremble as dramatically as the movement of armies across a battlefield. Indeed, faces, and the minds behind the faces, are battlefields upon which wills are bent and self-realization is a merciless, violent endeavour.
Always in a gorilla hunch and cradling his injured kidneys, Freddie moves from job to job, place to place. He may have killed a man who looked like his father. He’ll never know for sure; he ran from the scene. So he shambles; he is a shambles. Until, in 1950, he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), author, self-declared scientist, what we now call a New Age guru, a fictional figure many observers have pegged as a stand-in for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Freddie stows away on the borrowed yacht on which Dodd is marrying off his daughter, and Freddie is immediately taken under Master’s wing. Freddie and Dodd recognize each other as the unlikeliest of kindred spirits (literally; they’re sure they met in a another life), chosen father and chosen son, another of Anderson’s surrogate families (see Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, et cetera; families sprout like fungus on Anderson’s broad canvases). Dodd likes Freddie’s hooch and psychic malleability; Freddie likes Dodd’s paternal attention and fraternal, vaguely (or not so vaguely) homoerotic affection and apparent belief in his untapped potential. Freddie submits himself to “processing,” to answering Dodd’s standardized questions, many of them bringing up painful memories, a bastard hybrid of psychoanalysis and past life-regression hypnosis. (This scene, the two men below deck, a few swigs of hi-test swill already in their bellies, with only a microphone between them, with the focus so shallow that all there ever is on screen is one furiously alive face, just the surface of a face, is itself one of the most riveting pieces of cinema you’ll see this year, I promise.) Central to Dodd’s theories is the idea that man is not an animal, but Freddie is about as animal as any man can get. He’s also devoted to Dodd, at least until he can’t take it anymore, or until he feels abandoned. These men need each other, and this dark, fluid and captivating film is about the intensity and eventual collapse of their codependency.
There’s so much to The Master, its fusion of classicism and narrative idiosyncrasies ,some akin to literature than cinema per se; its very noir protagonist (imagine Robert Ryan in the Nicolas Ray version); its shifts in rhythm, its silences and now-cantering, now-shimmering music, from Radiohead’s spindly genius Johnny Greenwood; its commentaries on religion, state and commerce; its slips into reverie (the moment when every women becomes naked, when phones are brought to you while sleeping in movie houses); its sensual beauty and monumental sadness; its performances, perhaps most of all: Hoffman’s mesmerizing, Wellesian convergence of hysteria and colossal confidence; Amy Adams’ pedagogical tones and velvet-iron control as Dodd’s wife, the master behind the master; and Phoenix’s go-for-broke yet unnervingly real embracing of alcoholic derangement, childish longings, internal bleeding, and broken masculinity. (A key visual motif: the image of Naval Officer Freddie on some beach in the Pacific, snuggling up to a woman sculpted from sand, all generous breasts and spread-apart legs, Freddie’s feminine ideal—until the tide sweeps her away. Watch his fellow officers looks of growing discomfort as Freddie engages in too elaborate, protracted play-sex with her. ) The film will draw different ratios of unease and awe in different viewers, but I feel no reservations about called The Master a masterpiece, with all the provocations and points of contention that term implies.