(Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
The arc of Anderson's career is a fascinating one. The early films that are equal parts Mamet (crackerjack screenplays filled with brilliant dialogue and vivid characters), Scorsese (dazzling and ostentatious directorial pyrotechnics) and Altman (intersecting stories and overlapping soundtracks on tapestries tinted an odd mix of cynicism and profound sentimentality) served notice of a potentially massive talent. And, unlike so many boy wonder auteurs before him, Anderson has just about fulfilled that talent. He makes big, important, serious American films. He generates them himself, writing the scripts, and they are distinctively his films. Those powerful influences - and some newer ones; Demme, Welles and Kubrick, for instance - have been absorbed, and now he seems to be only himself.
His films are literary without ever compromising how intensely cinematic they are. They are never trivial, yet they can be funny. They are cerebral and yet gruellingly emotional.
These days his career seems more like that of a novelist than that of a director. He follows his muse where it leads him, from the intense sketchwork of Punchdrunk Love to the epic foundation myth of There Will Be Blood.
The Master is at heart a character study. It is still and patient, and perhaps even somewhat frustrating. Nobody learns anything in this film, nobody grows. The characters are never explained for the audience the way they are in many films. Anderson asks that we do some work, that we think about their motivations and their feelings. The Master is rewarding if you are willing to go with it. It is mysterious too, with depths in its detail that most directors could not even conceive of, never mind work them into a film such as this.
At its heart is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, magnificent), just out of the Navy in the years after WW2, and confused and purposeless in the Post-War World. Anderson elliptically shows us some of Freddie's experiences in service, enough to communicate some of his problems. He is an alcoholic who brews his own hooch from whatever is available - torpedo fuel, paint thinner - a habit that has him flee a migrant worker camp at one point after a man drinks from his concoction and dies. Phoenix plays Freddie as a man twisted by his own desire and frustration; his shoulders tense, waistband near his sternum, mouth a tight slash through which words are forced together in slurs, a laugh erupting from him when he's nervous.
The film itself seems as fascinated by what is at the root of Freddie's issues as Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) plainly is. Freddie stumbles, drunk, onto a ship carrying Dodd and his party down the California coast and through the Panama canal to New York city, and Dodd is intrigued by this "animal" who creates amazing potions and excites something within him. He claims they have met before but cannot recall where or when. There is an obvious homo-erotic subtext here but Anderson isn't interested in that. Nor is he really all that interested in "the Cause", Dodd's Scientology-like Cult which practices "applications" to regress subjects into past lives and is based around Dodd's writing. The Cause here is just another tool used to probe Freddie, to test his limits and arouse his passion, altough Dodd's circle provides an interesting dynamic, containing as it does Dodd's Lady Macbeth of a wife (Amy Adams) who disapproves of the arrival of this stranger and even his effect upon her husband; his disbelieving son Val (Jesse Plemons); and a daughter who flirts with Freddie before condemning him to her father.
Hoffman beautifully communicates Dodd's pomposity and his charisma, but more importantly he shows how this man feels a sort of envy for Freddie's surging impulsiveness, his "mischief". Dodd contains all his rage and frustration and they are only perceptible in a few instances - when he loses control during an argument with a dissenting voice at a party ("Pig Fuck!" he suddenly, shockingly yells) and when he and Freddie scream obscenities at one another after they are both arrested. He tries to "cure" Freddie, but perhaps only to keep this odd man around, to feel himself worshipped as his "Master". Their strange kinship is evident in a few shared scenes where they drink Freddie's mixture together and where they even wrestle. Their relationship is the engine driving the central passage of the film, bookended by scenes providing a sort of "origin" for Freddie's melancholy in the loss of a girl called Doris.
But then the film unpicks this too, and finally Freddie is left, fittingly, an enigma, ruined by the War.
This sort of characterisation is brave in an era where everything is explained to audiences, where pop-psychology is applied to every character. But then Anderson is a brave filmmaker. He treats Freddie like a real person, and so he is contradictory and driven by unknowable impulses.
He is brave too in the stylistic alteration he has made here. While the intense long takes remain, this is a film filled with equally intense close-ups. The camera pulls back on only a few memorable occasions. Otherwise we are trapped uncomfortably close to Freddie, watching him prowl, certain that an incident is close.
Anderson's style has become seamlessly controlled. The camera moves but never pointlessly. The cuts are natural, near-invisible. Jack Fisk's superb production design and Mihai Malaimare Jr's cinematography combine to form a convincing, textured portrayal of the 1950s. Jonny Greenwood's score is as atmospheric and unsettling as his work on There Will Be Blood.
But the key collaborator here is Phoenix, who seems to fully inhabit this part to a disturbing extent. In the final scene, a release and rapture for Freddie, we see him happy - almost certainly fleetingly - for the first time in the film. Perhaps that is what the character and his creator were searching for all along.
Whether that is the case or not, their quest is a beautiful, unforgettable one.