If Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film, Hard Eight, was essentially a study of Philip Baker Hall’s jowly visage, then The Master, Anderson’s latest, is anchored on the dark, crumpled countenance of Joaquin Phoenix. Whatever you’re told this movie is about, remember it’s about Phoenix’s face first.
Whether it’s age, makeup or experience – or, most likely, some combination of the three – Phoenix looks far more withered and worn than when we last saw him. Particularly when he scowls, which he does a lot, it’s almost as if his cleft lip has spread, so that rivulets now also cross his cheeks, his brow, his chin. As Freddie Quell, the troubled World War II veteran at the heart of The Master, Phoenix speaks in a garbled mumble, making you wonder if the words are coming from his mouth or one of these other crevices. It’s a physical manifestation of a scarred and broken character, a deeply damaged soul unable to make any sort of healthy human connection.
A less gracious way of describing Freddie would be to say he’s a creep. When we first meet him, as a Navy sailor on a tropical beach, he’s humping a sand sculpture in the shape of a woman long after his fellow seamen have stopped laughing. We soon learn this is part of a larger obsession; during his discharge, he takes a Rorschach test and identifies every blot as one sexual organ or another. Freddie is also a desperate alcoholic – paint thinner sometimes does the trick – and, being an Anderson character, prone to violent outbursts. Essentially, he’s one of those human tinderboxes you generally try to stay clear of. Anderson puts him front and center.
It’s become clear after six films that Anderson has a few obsessions of his own: characters consumed by rage or sexual dysfunction; surrogate fathers and sons; Philip Seymour Hoffman (more on him later). In the past, he’s explored such concerns in what have amounted to prodigious hat tips to the greats of the cinema: Hard Eight was Scorsese in miniature; Boogie Nights and Magnolia were his ensemble Altman nods; There Will Be Blood was nothing less than Citizen Kane transplanted to the oil business. Punch-Drunk Love is my favorite Anderson picture because, compared to the others, it’s his most idiosyncratic; there is no clear line to another particular film or filmmaker. Defiantly uncommercial and deeply personal, The Master is more in this vein. It’s a film only Anderson could have made.
You may have heard that The Master charts the early days of Scientology, but that’s something of a MacGuffin. Certainly there are clear parallels between Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who began the religious movement in the early 1950s, and Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), the self-help guru who catches Freddie stowing away on his ship and takes him under his wing. Yet The Master, despite its title, isn’t really concerned with Dodd as a cult figure or his self-described Cause as a movement. It’s primarily interested in Freddie’s inner struggle, Dodd’s offer of assurance and how all of us wrestle with the need to believe in something greater than our corrupted selves.
Don’t tell Hoffman that the movie isn’t about him, however. He dominates each scene he’s in, as he should given the character. Anderson even encourages this in Hoffman’s first scene, in which Freddie is brought to Dodd’s cabin, where he stands awkwardly in the doorway while Dodd sits calmly at a desk. In the shots of Freddie, a small corner of Dodd’s red shirt bleeds into the frame, invading both the mise en scene and Freddie’s space. From there, Hoffman is a whirling dervish – giving exhilarating, nonsensical speeches, even dancing and singing on occasion – as he establishes Dodd’s physical and intellectual dominance.
Yet there is Freddie, always skulking in the background, keeping us nervous and reminding us that this story is his. One of the handsome visual bursts that pepper the film – and there are many – is a recurring shot of brilliant blue water as it churns in a boat’s wake. The image evokes a sense of travel, of searching, and comes to echo the roiling nature of Freddie’s own spiritual journey. On more than one occasion, Dodd refers to Freddie as an animal, a primal beast that his tutelage will tame. Freddie acquiesces and is eventually broken down, but what will happen if he begins to experience cracks in his faith?
This idea – the frustration of faith – is echoed in the other characters, even in Dodd himself (one of the few times he loses his cool is when a skeptic publicly challenges his belief in past lives). Laura Dern has a minor part as a Cause adherent who notices a contradiction between the philosophy of Dodd’s first book and his second. When she questions him about it and he angrily dismisses her, she’s crushed. The Master may have very little to do with the tenets of Scientology itself, but it is very much interested in the way adherence to any religion ultimately comes down to one fragile thing: faith. Call it the agony of belief, an agony written all over Freddie Quell’s twisted face.