“If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.”
My general rule here is to only write about movies I’m seeing for the first time. Sometimes I’ll fudge that restriction if it’s something I haven’t seen in a couple of decades and barely remember. But here’s a movie that I only saw two years ago when it came out. Here’s a movie that I thought was amazing at the time, while being fully aware that I understood very little of it. Not the plot, I get that. I understood very little of why it was so amazing. Here’s a movie that I’ve thought about constantly for two years, knowing I needed to see it again. But I was kind of intimidated. I felt like the circumstances needed to be just right if I was going to give it the attention it deserved. Here is The Master.
It’s the end of the Second World War, and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) returns home, unsettled and unsure what to do next. When his homemade moonshine poisons a man, Freddie flees and stows away on a yacht leaving port. He’s soon discovered by the boat’s owner, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, he is a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.
Taken under the wing of Dodd and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), Freddie is soon under the spell of Dodd’s mammoth charisma, and a full member of his cult-like family. In some ways, seeing Freddie as his ultimate project and conquest, Dodd tires to break Freddie down and rebuild him in his own image. The only problem is, Freddie is already so broken in so many ways, even Dodd’s deep understanding of people can’t quite grasp Freddie’s mind or predict his actions. As small cracks start to appear in the foundations of Dodd’s Scientoloigy-like following, Freddie’s inclusion only becomes more and more dangerous.
Coming off his self-imposed exile after pretending to be crazy for a year or two, Phoenix had a lot to prove with The Master. And I’ll be buggered if he didn’t give one of the all time great movie performances. In fact, I think his break from sanity before making The Master even helps. Freddie Quell is so on edge, so erratic and so unpredictable in his rage every second that he’s on screen, Phoenix’s real life behavior only makes the character that much more convincing.
Paul Thomas Anderson is a director I resisted for a long time. I really liked Boogy Nights, but found Magnolia amazingly over rated and the worst kind of pretentious. And I still don’t know why so many people rate Punch Drunk Love as the great Adam Sandler performance of all time. To me, it’s totally fine, but it’s just Sandler bouncing between yelling and mumbling, like he does in every movie. Then I saw There Will Be Blood and I got it. I immediately understood that Anderson is working on that elite level that very few writers or directors ever reach. Not only does he have precise vision in mind when making a move, he actually achieves it.
In my eyes, There Will Be Blood took Anderson from the kind of director movie snobs bragged about liking so they’d seem discerning, to someone who I think is one of the best three or four film makers working today. So when he backed that up with The Master, as much as I was expecting and hoping for something great, I wasn’t expecting anything on this level. I still don’t think I understand everything this movie has to say and why I find it so affecting. It’s just so intricate, the performances are just so good and I’m just not smart enough. But I do know that even on a second viewing, The Master lost none of its impact.