Phoenix Rising: Student Outshines The Master

Philip Seymour Hoffman, the title character of “The Master,” is one of our greatest working actors. He chews scenery like it’s Doublemint gum and his screen presence usually varies from dominant to overwhelming. Directors give him extensive monologues without hesitation because he can spin gold out of silly string. Ultimately, it’s this track record of brilliantly heady performances that makes his turn in “The Master” so fascinating. Here, Hoffman gives a stunningly understated performance, hovering over the proceedings but never taking over. This effective but minimalistic approach allows writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson to hand over his car keys to a different performer, who in turn absolutely guns it.

It’s 1950. Post WWII. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie, a virulent caged animal of a man – a damaged, disturbed, and drunken war veteran who drifts from job to job before stowing away on a ship. It’s the same ship that happens to be carrying Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd and his “extended family.” Dodd initially keeps Freddie on board because he enjoys his mixed drinks – vile concoctions of booze and non-potable household liquids. Eventually, Dodd assimilates Freddie into the group through unconventional interviews, rife with deeply personal questions and bizarre non-sequiturs. Freddie is so desperate to belong, so in need of any kind of support system, that having any authority figure at all seems deeply comforting to him.

Lancaster Dodd is an author, scientist, scholar, and cult leader. The film isn’t shy about the latter. Much has been made about the film’s parallels to Scientology, and while Anderson and his cast have dismissed these suggestions to the press, the picture often embraces these commonalities. The “cult” angle is addressed in the film to an unexpected degree and Dodd’s belief system is repeatedly referred to as “The Cause,” focusing in on self-improvement and the banishment of one’s past from memory. The folks that Dodd surrounds himself with are more specters than human beings, ghostly outlines of the people they might have been before giving themselves over to this cult.

Freddie is Dodd’s first off-the-street project, Dodd’s first subject outside of his usual circle, and their relationship eventually devolves into something akin to Stockholm syndrome. Hints at a possible homosexual relationship between the two only complicate their onscreen relationship and the increasingly cruel and embarrassing exercises that Freddie undergoes furthers his mental fracturing. Comparisons to Alex from “A Clockwork Orange” wouldn’t be inappropriate – like Alex, we hate Freddie’s “after” just as much as we hated his “before.”

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is dazzling, the kind of effort we’re lucky to see once every two or three years. The unnerving spasticity he brings to the role is equal parts enthralling and frightening. The film’s sinister overtones rest squarely on Phoenix’s shoulders, and while Hoffman produces the requisite amount of sliminess, Freddie is the character that holds the entire piece together. He’s the mess that the narrative requires and Phoenix really delivers. Amy Adams also gives a surprisingly controlled performance, and it’s exciting to see her working outside her comfort zone (read: playing someone unlikable).

Visually, Paul Thomas Anderson knows exactly what he wants and gets it right, again and again. A ship’s wake is a continuing motif, and its beautifully blue spirals perhaps underscore Dodd’s disdain for moments passed – or is it disdain for knowledge and common sense? Anderson’s insistence on long takes and wide shots is invigorating (particularly in a jailhouse sequence) and gives the story maximum emotional heft. The 70mm scenes looked spectacular, the lighting nothing short of picturesque – but it’s hard to tell how well this will translate to 35mm or digital showings. Jonny Greenwood’s score is used sparingly, but it accents the most important narrative beats, particularly the most uncomfortable.

Despite its significant successes, “The Master” is not a film about big moments. It won’t appease those looking for a cathartic narrative or relatable characters. It’s difficult to digest in one sitting and one’s opinion of it is likely to change from viewing to viewing. The pacing is tight but the narrative is formless, making it a formidable challenge for less experienced moviegoers. Critical reaction should range from “good” to “great,” and after one viewing, I come down in the middle – it’s not quite as great as the sum of its parts. But, Paul Thomas Anderson’s vision is unflinching – the film will provoke endless discussion and interpretation – and Joaquin Phoenix is a revelation. His performance alone makes “The Master” a must-see for discriminating audiences.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: September 14, 2012 (Limited)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Jesse Plemons, David Warshofsky, Amy Adams, Rami Malek
MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity and language)