The Master isn’t Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film, I’ll fight you to the death that it’s There Will Be Blood, nor is it his worst film. It’s hard to place the film right now in the oeuvre of PTA as there’s some great stuff in there but I’m not sure Anderson completely pulls it off and articulates fully what he wants to say. Don’t get me wrong, this film is good, very good, but when we compare it to PTA’s other works, you always expect a grand slam, this time it was probably more of a home run.
Freddie Quell is back from World War II. He’s an alcoholic, having created all kinds of moonshine from a bevy of chemical products, and he’s pretty much just down right weird. He can’t hold down a job, lest chasing girls or violently attacking a customer at his photo booth. Drunk one night, Freddie stumbles onto the ship of Lancaster Dodd, who’s facilitating the wedding of his daughter, and becomes intrigued by Freddie’s experience in creating his alcoholic potions. While drunk, Lancaster begins to ask Freddie some obvious and slightly philosophical questions, which Freddie thinks is weird, but he eventually succumbs to its interest. Freddie falls deeper and deeper into Lancaster’s ideas and practices, and not to mention Dodd’s increasingly subject family members. The grip of Lancaster’s beliefs is placed upon Freddie as this man and his family provide the only comfort he’s genuinely received since the war. Freddie eventually gets placed with an ultimatum, follow Lancaster’s beliefs or be sent upon the wayside by himself. He chooses, but how concrete is it?
Visually, PTA crafts a wonderful film that captures the essence and beauty of the 1940s/50s with some fantastic camera work that reveals a depth of scope and develops a juxtaposition between the outer elements and the internal battles between Freddie and Lancaster. There’s also a mass of tension in the film, but it never beats you over the head with it, it just lingers, always present. This tension comes to a climax, when Lancaster challenges Freddie, his daughter and her husband to ride a motorcycle in the desert as fast as you can. Lancaster takes off, pretty fast, PTA follows him with the camera, nothing else is heard besides the engine, eventually Lancaster reaches his endpoint and turns around home. It’s Freddie’s turn, and something’s bound to happen, right? We’ve been set up by following Lancaster, almost too long, the tension is there, something has to happen. Freddie rides the cycle, fast, faster than Dodd, he keeps going, nobody knows where he went. The Master is filled with these deep moments, they work most of the time, getting into the head of Freddie, but there’s a few misfires where it’s not entirely clear what Anderson is getting at even through his prominent symbols and pairing of Freddie and Lancaster overpower the film.
Freddie seems to believe in Lancaster fullheartedly one minute, and the next he’s trying to get back to his sweetheart from before the war. He gets summoned to Lancaster’s new compound, under his own will, and is refuting him the next minute. I’m not sure things ever get fully realized with Freddie and his dedication or commitment or even reticence towards the cause, as things are left up in the air to his thoughts, and not in a good way either.
Again, I’m criticizing this film too much, where I probably really shouldn’t. Hey, watching PTA’s films in the past, I know for sure that you can receive his films in a plethora of ways, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the best film you ever saw, it attempts to be though-provoking enough, or a lesser film, it doesn’t completely form its ideas into a cohesive whole.
Nonetheless, you should see this movie. Joaquin Phoenix gives an incredible performance, and I’m not talking lightly here, he definitely hits a grand slam, utterly fantastic work by him. Hoffman is also very good, and solid, albeit nothing out of his wheelhouse that I haven’t seen before, but Hoffman is ALWAYS good. See this film, like it, love it, “meh” it, you (probably) won’t regret it.