Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) walks up to and touches a large picture window – "I see grass" – and then walks to the other side of the room and touches a wood-paneled wall – "I see lumber". Back and forth. Back and forth. Repeatedly as Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams) and their many followers watch. This is one of Dodd's, aka "The Master" of a new religious movement called "The Cause", methods of achieving a 'breakthrough'. But Quell is literally and figuratively hitting his head against the wall.
And this is a good analogy for how I felt after watching Paul Thomas Anderson's new film "The Master". I felt like I was hitting my head against the wall.
I am a huge admirer of Anderson's films. "Magnolia" and "There Will Be Blood" are two of my favorite films. "Punch Drunk Love" remains the best and only watchable Adam Sandler film. "Boogie Nights" is a great film containing some of the best performances of many of the actor's careers.
I also admire his films because he is one of a small handful of directors who make films they want to make in the way they want to make them. A three hour-plus look at the intersecting lives of people in the San Fernando Valley? Most studios would laugh in the director's face and slam the door behind them. A film about a turn-of-the-century oil prospector and the first section of the film will have no dialogue? Get out of here. Anderson is one of the few directors who can pull this off. He has only made six films in sixteen years and he tells complex, interesting and unusual stories in exactly the way he envisions.
Anderson is one of a handful of directors who seem to have complete control over their films. The film opened a week early in two theaters in Los Angeles and a few theaters in New York. Because he shot the film in 70mm, he requested the film be shown in 70mm and 35mm in addition to the now prevalent Digital Projection. The theaters agreed because they know he goes to such great pains to compose his films, and that their clientele would probably want to see the film in 70mm. But really, how often do you hear of a director doing this? More important, how many studios and theaters would agree to the extra cost? When the film eventually rolls out to theaters across the country, it will inevitably play in shoebox theaters, but it is an indication of the passion of the director that he is willing and able to make such a request. It is a sign of the respect he has earned that such a request is honored.
Because he makes each film with such care, and makes so few films, each new story arrives with a lot of anticipation attached. Buzz has been circulating about his newest film "The Master" almost from the moment it was announced. "It is a biography of L. Ron Hubbard, the former science fiction pulp writer who founded Scientology, the home to Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and many other Hollywood stars." "It is a critique of Scientology, looking at the early days of the movement." "It isn't a critique of Scientology." "It has nothing to do with Scientology." "It isn't about L. Ron Hubbard." And so on.
All of these arguments and comments evaporated when Anderson screened the film for Cruise, to get his input and/ or approval. The film does seem like a pretty transparent look at L. Ron Hubbard and the early days of Scientology.
But "The Master" does not reach the same heights as his previous films. And that's a shame, because it has a lot of good things going for it.
The production design, the sound design, the performances of the two leads, all great.
I would call Anderson an artist, despite this small misstep. He crafts every frame of his films with such exacting detail that you can't help but be transported to the time and place depicted. "Master" opens with a brief segment depicting Freddie's service in the Navy during the last days of World War II. The scenes show the men trying to stave off boredom and getting into mischief. And they give us a glimpse at the lengths Freddy will go to get buzzed on alcohol. These moments, influenced by Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line", are strangely beautiful in their depiction of the war; they almost seem like they could be pulled from a hyper-realistic revival of "South Pacific". When the story returns stateside, Freddy gets a job at a department store and you have no doubt the film is set in the 50s. Anderson recreates a grand old store (like an old Bullocks) with such beauty, it makes you feel as though you are actually walking through it. A beautiful yacht, a Manhattan socialite's apartment, a large home, a seedy storefront in Phoenix, each new setting adds to the rich look of the film.
Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood composed the music for this film, as he did with "There Will Be Blood", and it is an unusual score adding a lot of the texture to the film. As Freddie tries to stave off boredom in the Navy, he pounds on a coconut, trying to get it open. These sounds join other bits of ambient noise to become part of the score, creating a music that seems unusual, yet unobtrusive because the sounds are coming from real life. Much like the old Warner Bros. cartoons when the characters would create an 'Anvil Chorus'. Greenwood continues this throughout. It is refreshing in a way, because it is so different from a Hans Zimmer, a Danny Elfman and most definitely very different from a John Williams score. Different in a good way because even my appreciation of Zimmer's and Elfman's work is waning because everything they do sounds so similar.
Joaquin Phoenix is almost mercurial as Freddie Quell, the disillusioned serviceman who returns home feeling out of place. Drinking whatever form of alcohol he can get his hands on, he roams from job to job, while losing what little social standing he has, until he wanders onto a yacht being used by Lancaster Dodd for his daughter's wedding. He wakes up the next morning, confronted by Dodd. Apparently, before he passed out, Freddie whipped up a batch of hooch and Dodd is eager for more. Quell seems to find a peace Dodd's words and thoughts and eagerly follows him from stop to stop. In fact, he becomes so enamored of Dodd, he willingly engages anyone who criticizes the new movement in a fist fight.
Phoenix's performance shouldn't work, but somehow he pulls it off. Theatrical and over-the-top, Freddie is full of grand gestures and shouts, but Phoenix also embellishes the character with tics and doubt, filtering the grander aspects of his character into something more human. And much more troubled. Freddie Quell is a man who has never lived with much guidance and now that the war is over, he finds himself drifting through life trying to find the next drunken binge. And when he finds Dodd, he also finds one more addiction to feed his lonely life.
"I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man, just like you." There are few actors who could utter this line of dialogue and make us believe it. Thankfully, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, a former Science Fiction pulp writer who is slowly building a new religion. When he utters this line, you might expect yourself to laugh, but Hoffman is amazingly believable in the role. You believe in his conviction, in his strength, in his disappointment at criticism. He can see this religion so clearly, why can't every one else?
When Dodd actually conducts some of the exercises he uses, I couldn't help but stare rapt at the screen. Hoffman's mostly calm, measured performance makes Dodd seem more real and believable. And when he gets upset, these moments simply round out the performance. The character really comes together when Dodd's group visits the apartment of a Manhattan socialite. She has arranged a party, full of wealthy people eager and willing to experience the Cause. Dodd and his entourage arrive and mingle. Later, Dodd begins to lead a woman through "Processing", the other party guests watching with rapt attention. A man stands to one side watching. As Dodd begins walking the women through the exercise, the man begins to interrupt. But Dodd doesn't acknowledge him and continues. The man interrupts a few times and each time Dodd ignores him. Finally, he can longer be ignored and Dodd angrily turns to him, listening to his criticisms and then answers back. As the story continues, we see Dodd demonstrate different aspects of his new religion and defend it against various attacks. And throughout, Hoffman brings a fine, modulated intensity to the role.
If Phoenix is the showier of the two actors, he is perfectly complimented by Hoffman's more restrained, but also volatile performance.
Amy Adams is also good as Peggy, Dodd's pregnant wife and most ardent supporter. She quietly stands in the background, always smiling, until she sees the effect Quell is having on Dodd and The Cause. Later, she reveals the level and intensity of her power, making her a suddenly much more interesting character.
Even with all of these good things, the film is still missing something, something to tie it all together, to make the film as a whole work.
Throughout, we see various degrees of Freddie's erratic behavior. But we never see what he is like in a normal state, or at least, a more normal state. From the beginning, he is bored, restless and on the hunt for the next binge. While it is interesting to watch such an all-consuming portrayal of a man's downward spiral, without some indication of where he started out the journey becomes unanchored and problematic. Freddie doesn't have the roundness of Anderson's other leads. An argument could be made that Freddie's days with the Navy are the beginning, but he is already acting so immature, so at ease, there has to be an earlier beginning which we don't have the opportunity to witness.
The reason for Dodd's infatuation with Freddie is also lost on me. From the moment they meet, Dodd seems to feed off something within the drunk, lost soul of his new protégé. And while Freddie wholeheartedly embraces the ideals of The Cause, he seems to have difficulty actually living by these new ideals. Dodd views his new protégé as a project, someone he can make better and use as a poster child for his new movement. But Freddie never really improves, so why does Dodd remain infatuated? Peggy even question's her husband's devotion to Freddie.
There are a few very brief moments when we begin to get a picture of Dodd's thought processes behind The Cause. But these moments are way too brief and aren't hard hitting or insightful enough to offer any sort of comment, critique or insight into the reasons behind this new religion.
And when "The Master" is done, you still have questions. You still want more. You still need more to connect all the dots.
And this has never happened during a Paul Thomas Anderson film before.