Nothing of value has ever come easy, and to extrapolate the themes and messages underneath Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest spellbinding work is as tumultuous and perplexing of an experience I’ve endured in the theatre. Then after all the contemplation and frustration ends, the reward begins, and the case of The Master we receive an intoxicating and transcendent journey unlike any film before.
My use of hyperbole is no match for Anderson’s grandiose ambition. The time is 1950, post-WWII, and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a navel officer returning from the Pacific. Upon arrival he picks up a job as photographer in California. In no time the mentally deluded alcoholic manages to get fired from his job, misfire on a date with a buxom woman and accidentally poison a co-worker with a concoction not remotely resembling alcohol.
Quell ultimately stumbles onto a boat in San Francisco and wakes up the following morning in front of the captain, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd immediately describes himself to Quell as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.” In response, Freddie omits his faults and proclaims to be an able-body seaman ready for work. There their bond is formed and, uncoincidentally, so is the film.
As the eclectic group of people (notably Dodd’s wife Peggy played by Amy Adams) travel out east to New York City, the true passion of Lancaster is revealed, a faith-based organisation entitled the Cause. Using de-hypnotisation to awaken the soul and recreating our “inherent state of perfection” to ride ourselves of past trauma, Dodd is essentially a reimagining of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, but this is a film less about its methodologies and ideologies, and more about the intriguing relationship between the two central characters.
Hoffman and Phoenix, set against an atmospheric post-WWII depressing and confusing environment, share some of the most scintillating exchanges of the last decade with the informal processing sequence an example of filmmaking at its very finest. The Master is also the first motion picture since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet back in 1996 to be shot on 65mm and projected on 70mm. The result, in large part to cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., is a luminous, enigmatic, and downright breathtaking display of creative lighting, imagery, and architecture.
At times equally confounding and enlightening, Quell’s life is emblematic of most of our own. While a majority of us haven’t suffered from the traumatisation of war, most of us do spend time hopelessly searching for purpose in our lives. When Freddie initially meets Dodd, he’s unstable, upset, and disillusioned. Dodd appears to be, in the eyes of many (including Quell’s), an insightful man who possesses knowledge unlike anyone else. Naturally, susceptible to anyone ostensibly containing Godly powers, Freddie becomes obedient and protective of Dodd.
Posting some 137-minutes of screen time, The Master does an effective job of painting the dichotomy between master and student and how often we’re all slaves to a higher authority, sometimes by our own volition, sometimes by force. While melancholy often permeates Anderson’s narrative, the warm and comforting voices of Ella Fitzgerald and Helen Forrest help in particular to drown out the unbearable sadness of Freddie’s disturbed pas t and uncertain future. We talk about the medium of film being a true art form of expression, The Master, in cinema’s purest 70mm beauty and wonder, is the reason why.