For Your Consideration: The Master


Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, was an epic character study of oil baron Daniel Plainview, masterfully brought to life by Daniel Day-Lewis. Anderson’s film followed Plainview into the darker side of the American Dream, a path of empty capitalism and unrepentant greed. Now, seven years later, Anderson brings another dark slice of Americana with The Master.

Spanning a time of a few years in post-World War II America, The Master turns its focus on two men, the disturbed Freddie Quell and the charismatic spiritual leader Lancaster Dodd or as his followers call him- the Master. Quell arriving home from the Pacific Theater, now suffering from PTSD, finds himself directionless and barely functioning in America. Drifting from place to place and job to job he eventually finds himself on a ship where a party is being held by Dodd. Dodd takes Quell under his wing, perhaps hoping to prove his teachings will help tame the damaged Freddie or perhaps it’s some past life nonsense. Quell is easily swayed by Dodd’s charm and hopes to find meaning in the Master’s work, known as The Cause.

In Anderson’s sparse narrative he explores the creation and growth of Dodd’s cult. While, fascinating in its own right the greater focus on the movie is the lives of Quell and Dodd during this period. With two mighty performances from Joaquin Phoenix (Quell) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Dodd), it is simply magnetic to watch the duo’s relationship play out.

Phoenix hasn’t been in a conventional movie since 2008’s Two Lovers. He had involved himself in some sort of surreal performance piece, which was captured in 2010’s I’m Still Here, where many thought he had gone crazy. After the stint of improv madness had been revealed as a hoax Phoenix, perhaps recharged, returned to acting with The Master and has poured his all into the role of Freddie Quell. To say that Quell is a hot mess is an understatement. He’s a shambling, barely articulate man that spends a great deal of time drinking homemade booze, usually created with a dash paint thinner.  Phoenix’s transformation in Quell is simply amazing. Phoenix’s Quell plays him out with an animalistic quality, as if he was less than human. He has mad dog aura to him. One that will continue to bite the hand that feeds but will heed like a good pet at times.  Every single stutter, facial twitch, and body movement in played out with clockwork perfection. Phoenix delivers the acting job of his career so far in Quell, a man that is tied and will play out his most basic instincts. Although, much of what we see in Quell is his much more violent, wild side there is a deep sadness that Phoenix is able to weave in. It is able to see it in Phoenix’s face, the quiet sadness that is true  Freddie Quell. The raging and violent outburst are derivatives of his inner demons. A man raging out for a cry for help, a purpose.

Seymour’s Dodd, on other hand, is a much more subdue role than Quell. On the surface Seymour plays up Dodd’s ego and all the greasy charm of a used car salesman. He’s likeable, well spoken, and there seems to be a genuine drive to want to help people with The Cause. Seymour is spectacular in this sense but what really takes the role to the next level is Dodd’s tightly wound, and deliberate controlled nature. Dodd’s son asserts that he’s making it up as he goes, that The Cause is just a charlatan concocting nonsense, hiding a kooky religion in bad science fiction novels. It feels as if Seymour is holding a great amount of rage back but throughout cracks form showing a much more truer side to Dodd.

No doubt the mysterious relationship between Dodd and Quell is the most intriguing part of The Master. It’s an odd relationship that seems to range many different forms– student/teacher, dog/owner, friends, and enemies. One of the main themes that recur throughout all of Anderson’s work is that of the strained relationship between father and son. Dodd tries to raise Quell as his own, tries to mold him, and break him under his fatherly advice.

Post-World War II America was a weird, didactic time in its history, a country in stark denial of its true self. After World War II, the economy had quickly rebound and with Europe a wasteland, America had quickly positioned itself as a superpower. The rise of suburbia and the nuclear family was captured in sharp black-and-white and the image was immortalized in squeaky-clean broadcast like Leave it To Beaver. This was just the hollow empty shell trying to contain the hideous truths. The fight for Civil Rights exploded causing racial violence, witch hunts for supposed communists, and a conflict of ideologies that would drag the world into a state that it’s still trying to recover from. Anderson takes a snapshot of that era exposing the emptiness of it all. Dodd’s followers are shown to be idle, empty people finding truths in cruddy, non-ironic fiction. Dodd himself seems not to believe in it’s entirely. He brushes followers off who bring up inconsistencies in his work and feels tired with explaining himself. If There Will Be Blood played the drive for wealth of the American Dream than The Master is the search for meaning and direction. Dodd’s Cause is comfort food to those that need meaning. It’s easy to digest no matter how convoluted Dodd’s future works make it. It a wonderful obstacle to Freddie Quell’s search for hard truths.

Anderson’s film beautifully-shot, purposely difficult story. The search for meaning is never clear, never straightforward filled with lies and people to distort it. Combined that with perhaps two of the greatest performances of the year make The Master the most fascinating film of the year and easily solidifies Anderson as one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation.

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