I first became aware of Paul Thomas Anderson with Boogie Nights, his Altman-esque ode to the waning golden age of porn in the 1970s. Subject matter aside, it was a remarkable ensemble piece that was followed up with an even more stellar film with a similar DNA, Magnolia. After getting a surprisingly layered performance from Adam Sandler in his next film, Punchdrunk Love, his work started to go in a new and more ambitious direction. As critics have said, where once he was trying to be Robert Altman, now he's trying to be Stanley Kubrick. There's no doubt in my mind that people are going to be looking back at 2007's There Will Be Blood as one of the most accomplished pieces of filmmaking ever made, but if you've seen it - perhaps out of bemused curiosity as to why everyone was suddenly talking about milkshakes back in 2007 - you might be thinking "... really?!" I hasten to add that there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that response, but this is something to keep in mind before wading into the salty waters of his newest film, The Master. Like There Will Be Blood before it, this is a film of lingering shots and slow burn storytelling. Storytelling, in fact, might be a misleading term, as the film centers more on the performances than plot.
Unlike There Will Be Blood, this movie does not have a lot of hooks for pop culture to get snagged on. I can't recall any notable "I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE" moments that can be easily lampooned or whittled down to amusing memes. Where There Will Be Blood was bombastic, The Master is more measured, with the real spirit of the film lying in it's quieter moments, some of which barely conceal much deeper and more intense emotion. You may have heard that this film is about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. That's ... sort of true. It is and it isn't. A comparison I've heard a lot from people who've seen it is that it's as much a movie about Scientology as Citizen Kane was a movie about William Randolph Hearst. I'll just leave that there, as my knowledge of the Church of Scientology is at absolute zero. For my money, it's about a guy who's a bit lost after World War II ends and eventually finds himself in a cult.
Our main character is Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, whose face is weathered beyond his years and shows the signs of his having survived more than his share of battles, both physical and spiritual (seriously, he looks even more like Johnny Cash than he did when he played him in Walk the Line). He's a former Navy man and comes back from World War II to work a string of jobs, each of which he eventually abandons with great histrionics. He has a gift for making homemade liquor from household chemicals (e.g., paint thinner, photo developing solution), but after nearly killing another man who samples one of his concoctions, he runs away in a panic and stumbles onto a riverboat where a group of people are celebrating a wedding. He wakes up the next morning in one of the boat's bunks and is brought to meet Lancaster Dodd (whose daughter is the one getting married). Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) found the last of Freddie's most recent batch of hooch and sampled it, thoroughly impressed though still admonishing. Right away, you see an instant connection between these two men, and this movie could be characterized as a sort of non-sexual romance between them. Freddie is clearly much more drawn to Dodd than to "The Cause," and everyone around Dodd is nervous about what effect Freddie is having on him.
What draws these two men to each other? Freddie is a very crude, animalistic man. Early in the film, we see him jerk off into the ocean. When one of his fellow sailors builds a sand sculpture of a naked, supine woman, Freddie entertains everyone by feverishly humping it. In a psych test, he sees sex organs in all the inkblots. And during his first interview with Dodd, he farts and giggles at himself. Dodd, on the other hand, is very erudite and gentlemanly, almost effeminate (though he's definitely the, errr, "top" with Freddie ... she said, hoping that everyone noticed the quote marks). Freddie is drawn to Dodd's magnetism, no doubt, but I also think that, in the wake of nearly killing a man earlier in the film, he is craving direction and wants to be told what to do. Dodd, I think, is drawn to Freddie's more primal nature (even while chastising him for it). I believe it also must be a classic case of "I can change him."
This movie is a bit of a Rorschach test, which I'm sure is by design (I see what you did there, PT, with the inkblot test scene). There's obviously something Anderson is trying to say about faith and religion here, but it asks more questions than it answers, which might be frustrating for a lot of viewers but I think it's exactly what Anderson was trying to do (ambiguity, I mean, not frustrating the audience :P). For me, I can't help seeing The Cause as having an issue that a lot of faith-based organizations, including churches, have. They want to assimilate Freddie, to help him on their terms and not take who he is and what his issues are into account. And when Dodd's affection for Freddie lets the mission change even the slightest bit, it's seen as a threat.
A lot of critics seem to have issues with the, shall we say, malleable nature of what this film is about. I think that even the title itself is open to interpretation. Who is "the master" in this movie? The answer isn't as obvious as it might seem. But I have to love a film that makes me think about what it's really about and what it's telling me. Sometimes it's exhausting to watch a film like that, and sometimes you just want to see people slip on a banana peel or blow crap up, but films like this are essential, too.
In technical terms, this movie could not be more beautifully photographed, and if there is a theater near you showing it in 70mm (the way it was filmed), I would highly recommend seeing it that way. And Anderson uses the 70mm, not just to film landscapes and vistas, but more often to show us as much detail as possible of the spectacular performances his actors, especially Phoenix and Hoffman, who frequently appear in extreme close-up. Also of note is the period production design, which is Jack Fisk's handiwork. I always love seeing Fisk's name attached to a movie, not just because he's Mr. Sissy Spacek, but because he's been around since the 1970s and done work on some amazing films, including DePalma's Carrie (and he's pretty much responsible for his then new-ish wife auditioning for that film). In other technical news, if you liked Jonny Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood, his score for The Master is even better.
One more thing, and this may be something you find crass to focus on, but I think it's a huge part of Anderson's sensibilities, and I kind of love him for it. There are a couple of scenes that include some rather frank female nudity, one of which is a sort of hallucination (featuring several women) and the other of which is a sex scene (featuring one woman, along with a man who you of course see less of because seeing too much of a man's body takes us into NC-17 territory and don't get me started on that double standard). Both scenes feature actresses with very different kinds of bodies, none (well, almost none) of which you're used to seeing in scenes that ogle the female form. And it's kind of awesome to see women's bodies celebrated, even (or maybe especially) if they don't fit the big-boobs-on-a-stick (or sometimes two-aspirins-on-a-stick) blueprint that seems to be all Hollywood sees fit to point a camera at.
I'm curious as to where this movie will end up in the Oscar conversation. A lot of critics seem to be falling all over themselves to praise it to the skies, but it's not what you'd call a crowd-pleaser. I'd say that Phoenix and Hoffman are in the acting race for sure, though thankfully they won't have to compete with one another, since the studio is planning to push Phoenix as the lead and Hoffman in support. If the Academy likes it enough, there could be room on the movie's coattails for a nomination as well for Amy Adams, who has a small but memorable role. Ack, the Oscar stuff is starting again, isn't it? I'm not ready. :D