Two men stare at each other across the table of a dimly lit study. Alcohol flows in their blood as their minds swim in whiskey. One fires a series of questions like shots at the other, probing into his most private feelings and personal experiences, a practice called processing. The processee’s eyes become dry and bloodshot as he struggles not to blink, for doing so would forfeit his progress and force him to start again. For the processer this is an exercise in control and dominance, one that he executes with the skill of a surgeon. As the processee’s face betrays the agonising price it takes to endure this mental torture, secrets pour from him like blood from a wound.
This is the clip that will be played again and again during the Oscars and the build up to it. Every single feature, report and item that so much as mentions the Oscars will have this as the establishing VT. This is the defining scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s most mature movie yet. It serves as a microcosm of the whole film and a showcase for its greatest strengths. In short it is the Milkshake Moment of The Master.
The Master tells the story of Freddie Quell, a World War Two veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Unable to keep a job without flying into an alcoholic rage Freddie finds himself waking up aboard a vessel owned by one Lancaster Dodd. Mr. Dodd is the leader of those who follow his new philosophy, The Cause. He claims to be in need of a sailor but really he is after a bartender and only Freddie’s unorthodox concoctions that seemingly consist entirely of whiskey and paint thinner seem to quench his thirst.
Their relationship is the essence of The Master. For anyone seeking a story do not go looking for this film, you will not find one here. It is a character study, a performance piece, but a narrative it is not. If you can’t find yourself compelled by the intense acting, the sumptuous cinematography, the painstaking period detail, then it has little left to offer.
But if you can look past the lack of plot The Master has some enthralling rewards. Scenes like the one I’ve described above close a curtain on the world around you. It draws you in closer to the action and isolates you from the rest of the world. Suddenly the only things that exist are you and it. The ends of these scenes feel like they are gently rousing you from a lucid dream; often you can forget that you were even in a cinema.
The film also has a mesmerising sense of time and place, you feel transported to mid century America. You can see the clash of generations puritanical and liberal, the hypocrisy of one, the cowardice of the other. You see the post adolescent America wrestling with and conquering capitalism. You see it all through the lens of an optimistic photographer, the kind whose work will be put up on posters around the country declaring America and its way of life the best on earth, the future in a forward thinking world.
Its Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell that shatters this vision. As a member of the United States most celebrated generation he is one of the soldiers who didn’t have to be killed on the battlefield to be declared dead by society. His squint, his slouch, his addiction to rage and vice separate him from his fellow countrymen who do not wish to consider the consequences of victories on foreign soil.To look upon him is to feel pain. He inhabits an alien physicality that has that classic car crash quality, gripping in its repulsiveness. Both utterly convincing yet garishly cartoonish Quell’s presence leads the film despite what the title may have you think.
Philip Seymore Hoffman’s Dodd tries to wrestle the lead away from Joaquin Phoenix’s Quell as soon as he shows up. He wraps the characters around his finger instigating all the action, his vanity not allowing anyone else a chance to take the reins. You even get the feeling he’s competing with Quell for dysfunctional intensity and there are even brief moments where it betrays its sense of perspective and shows the events from his point of view as if to suggest that even the film submits to Dodd’s domineering intellect.
But just when you feel Dodd has finally tamed Freddie, he bolts and the camera follows him, leaving Lancaster Dodd standing alone once again, isolated in a crowd of people hanging on to his every word, perhaps seething with jealousy that even in a story named after him he will never be the main character.
But although the two performances were near faultless, the film that they are portrayed in is not. For a man whose appearance and mannerisms bear such a striking resemblance to a creepy, emotionally disturbed Popeye, Freddie Quell has a near faultless record of attaining the desire of attractive women. There is a slight wiff of Hollywood screenwriter wish fulfilment in these moments, Andreson unconsciously sacrificing the authenticity of his character to project his unfulfilled desires on screen.
Not a man to be out done Lancaster Dodd has an inconsistency of his own. He is supposed to be charming and charismatic, but cracks at the slightest hint of criticism. How can a man persuade so many people of such outlandish theories when he reacts so aggressively to questioning? Did his followers all fall so neatly into line without the faintest hint of scepticism?
And although Amy Adams has been getting huge amounts of praise for her role (and deservedly so) she feels like she has so much less to do than the boys. Whenever she is on screen she feels like she is a major player, but for large portions of the film her role feels almost forgotten. Such a pivotal role like this needs more to create the impact it deserves. Perhaps a less male focused director would have made better use of such a valuable asset, but here it seems like such a waste.
The success of The Master will be measured in peoples reaction to it. There will be fawning praise and bitter resentment, loud applause and enraging bewilderment. But what there will not be is apathy. Perhaps the greatest success a film can achieve is getting a reaction out of everyone, no matter how positive or negative that reaction may be.
That is because Paul Thomas Anderson is a man who creates works of originality. Whether you agree with his methods or not he, like Dodd, is a leader not a follower, a man unconcerned with trend or conventional wisdom. He is an artist and one of the most interesting film makers working in the American Mainstream today. I can’t promise you that you will like The Master, but I can promise that you will have plenty to talk about when it’s over.