Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 21, 2013)
Five years after the critical success of There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the director’s chair with 2012’s The Master. Set after the finish of World War II, Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) drifts aimlessly and finds himself beset by PTSD-caused breakdowns.
Eventually Freddie encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a new spiritual movement named “The Cause”. Dodd calls himself “The Master” and runs the organization along with wife Peggy (Amy Adams). Freddie becomes Dodd’s assistant and we follow their relationship as well as the rise of “The Cause”.
Some films set themselves up for easy interpretation and discussion, while others prove much more difficult to dissect. Into the latter camp falls Master, an unusual experience that proves to be fascinating, though not always for the most obvious reasons.
Despite the synopsis above, Master lacks anything that really resembles a standard narrative. Of all Anderson’s films, this one seems the most abstract and the most like something we might get from Terence Malick. Indeed, the movie’s early scenes during the Pacific War gave me flashbacks to Malick’s Thin Red Line, though without all the dreamy monologues.
That creates the biggest difference between Anderson and Malick. While the former might indulge in vaguely formless storytelling, he doesn’t give us movies that go as far off the narrative rails as most of Malick’s do. Try as he might to deliver a movie without a strong plot or spine, Anderson can’t help but latch onto something.
In this case, it’s the relationship between Dodd and Freddie. Whatever other tangents it might pursue, the movie revolves around that pair, and their connection helps sustain it despite the absence of a formal “plot”.
The portrayal of the characters also ensures the movie defies simplistic pigeonholing. Given that the flick bases Dodd and “The Cause” on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, it easily could’ve degenerated into a simplistic “exposé” on the insidious nature of cults. Some of that does emerge – we’re certainly given reason to view Dodd as an opportunistic charlatan – but Master refuses to stick with such a one-dimensional attitude.
Again, the meat comes from the interactions between Dodd and Freddie. As much as we might see Dodd as a huckster, he seems devoted to Freddie and wants very much to help the mentally wounded war veteran. Much of the film follows those attempts and their success or lack thereof.
Even in that vein, though, Master throws curveballs at us. At times it can be tough to discern how much of Dodd’s work qualifies as altruistic assistance and how much acts as artful brainwashing – or maybe both. Since the film won’t pin down any of the characters or situations in a concrete manner, it remains open to interpretation.
I admit that some of this vagueness can be a little maddening at times. On occasion, I wished the movie would give us a little more plot on which to hang our hats; while it never meanders, it walks a fine line and threatens to amble toward oblivion on occasion.
But this never occurs, as Anderson and an excellent cast ensure Master remains pretty gripping despite the narrative looseness. The film received three Oscar nominations, all for its actors: Hoffman, Phoenix and Adams got nods. Of the three, Hoffman seems the most deserving. Adams is fine, but she gets a minimal role without much real depth; Peggy is a marginal character throughout much of the film, so Adams doesn’t have much to do in the part.
I like the fact that Phoenix refuses to dull Freddie’s rough edges; he creates a supposed protagonist with many facets that seem likely to alienate the audience. However, I think Phoenix can be too mannered at times, and I’m not sure he always gets to the character’s heart; there’s something a bit superficial and showy about his turn as Freddie.
Hoffman hits the sweet spot as Dodd. I think he takes on the most challenging character, as Dodd feels like the one most likely to turn into a caricature – and also the personality with the highest level of potential unlikeability. After all, audiences don’t often identify with and care for the leaders of personality cults.
Despite those challenges, Hoffman delivers a powerhouse performance. He gives us all the appropriate facets required for the character and ensures that we can’t quite pin down Dodd. Given the various pros and cons attached to the role, it’d be easy for an actor to lean one way or another, but Hoffman doesn’t. He creates a full-fledged human here and adds crucial life to the film.
At no point does The Master threaten to become my favorite Paul Thomas Anderson film – I have a feeling he’ll never quite top the vivacious roller coaster that was Boogie Nights - but it might be his best realized. The Master provides a quality drama that won’t wow you but it’ll draw you in with its character studies.