REVIEW: The Master

Rating: 4 stars (out of 4)

The Master (2012): Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.  Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Laura Dern.  Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, and language.  Running time: 137 minutes.

No doubt you’ve heard about the controversy surrounding The Master for its supposed commentary on Scientology, but the teachings behind the cult in question (known as “The Cause”) form only a background to the real interests of the film.   Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s is more intrigued by the psychology of belief:  of how, why, and if people believe.  And it’s positively compelling.

We begin in the thick of World War II, as Anderson constructs miniature tone poems illustrating our protagonist’s frame of mind:  restlessness, anticipation, and violence.  His name is Freddie Quell.  He’s a man who looks like he got up on the wrong side of the bed every day of his life.  Joaquin Phoenix, ditching his beard (and persona from the infamous Letterman interview), throws on an inimitable sneer and struts around with his hands permanently affixed to his hips.  His larger-than-life personality seems to look at life and say, “That’s it?”

Quell’s initial attempts at post-war life don’t exactly go well—he manages to lose his job as a department store photographer (rather awfully), and as a migrant farm worker (even more awfully).  Disillusioned and failing to find a place amidst the stability of post-WWII America, Freddie discovers a strange and oddly comforting figurehead on a party yacht—the leader of “The Cause” (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who seems to be waiting for him.  So begins a descent, or perhaps an exercise in futility, or maybe even a kind of salvation.

The cult is really a vehicle for the character of Lancaster Dodd, a man who is “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher…but above all…a man.”  Never was modesty so false.  Hoffman plays Dodd with the necessary superficial grandeur, while also hinting at the insecurity and fear inherent in a man of his position.  Playing his wife is Amy Adams in a role that recalls the intensity and grittiness that earned her an Oscar nomination for The Fighter.

Anderson makes films that don’t really look like anything else these days—this one recalls Terrence Malick’s early films and Krzsyztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog series, but it’s perhaps most similar in style and tone to Anderson’s own There Will Be Blood.  And while familiar, this new film also noticeably breaks away.  Anderson’s notoriously mobile camera stays mostly stagnant, focusing on the characters within the frame, simultaneously exposing their strengths and vulnerabilities.  Gone is the sweeping cinematography—most of the film occurs in tiny rooms, establishing the claustrophobic nature of the film.  Anderson has a sure touch with dialogue, but he reserves much of it for key scenes and lets imagery do most of the talking.

Rather than lambaste Scientology, religion, or cults, Anderson instead investigates the psychology behind them.  What happens when people seek the abstract fulfillment afforded by religion?  The answer to this question depends on the person.  Freddie wants something out of life, but just what that is, and whether “The Cause” can provide it, becomes the movie’s main source of inquiry.  Dodd’s quasi-Freudian interrogations reveal something of Quell’s past, but don’t seem to help him–at least not intentionally.

Structured in a way that seems deliberately opaque on first glance, The Master gradually reveals its characters until they are stripped bare.  Though steeped in dark irony, the film doesn’t really say whether these characters are good or bad.  Some critics may attack the film on that basis, but I find it refreshing.  It lets the material breathe.  Too many films, old and new, seek to explain character behavior.  And have no fear; a scene in which Quell and Dodd each take turns riding a motorcycle effectively summarizes the perspectives of two characters, without pigeon-holing them.

The Master will not appeal to all tastes, but it’s not just a film for the “art-house” crowd.  It’s a film for people:  believers, non-believers, and everyone in between.