There are those bemoaning the end of film — as in developed photographic film with light projected through it — as a medium, just as there are those who mourn vinyl. As with audio, it actually won’t matter very much for most movies. But also as with audio there are some works of visual art that really do benefit from the high-quality analog format. Gorgeous films like those made by Paul Thomas Anderson are among them, and The Master more than qualifies. If its release on a 70mm print is the swan song of a fading medium, the medium could ask for little better.
Thematically, though, Anderson’s latest work is as murky as its images are clear; it does not yield itself easily on a first viewing. This, however, is only a problem for those who lack patience and the will to do some of the work themselves. If that sounds imposing, don’t worry: even if you have no idea what’s happening you get to see a stellar cast delivering some amazing performances. And, as I said, beautiful, beautiful pictures.
In essence, The Master is a story — and here I am careful not to say the story — of the early days of Scientology and of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Here, instead, we have Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who leads a group of devotees of the philosophy laid out in his book, The Cause. We also have the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who drifts from job to job in the wake of his naval service in World War II. The word “alcoholic” barely begins to describe him; he is an alchemist of intoxication, crafting cocktails from paint thinner, from photo developing chemicals, or from something he extracts from the drive systems of his battleship’s torpedoes.
Freddie drunkenly stows away on the Alethia. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say he shanghais himself into The Cause, as Dodd soon takes him into the inner circle including Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), his son, Val (Jesse Plemons), his daughter, Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), and her new husband, Clark (Rami Malek). We get to watch as Freddie undergoes a “processing” session with Dodd — a process which resembles a cross between talk therapy and hypnosis. Later, we see an extended montage of “applications”, drawing the subject further under the group’s control.
The Cause, as we see, is effectively a form of guided psychotherapy fused to a pretty loopy sort of metaphysics. But where traditional analysis recognizes the risk of transference and tries to avoid it, The Cause relies on it to bind the subjects ever closer to the movement, and to Dodd himself. And the technique works most effectively on those who are already desperate and less likely to question its methods.
Freddie is, indeed, desperate. Phoenix wears Freddie’s pain in every scene, down to a Popeye squint speaking to a damaged facial nerve. And yet his remaining, unsublimated fury is powerful enough that he starts to act as the informal enforcer for The Cause that Dodd claims to abhor, but for which Peggy seems to recognize a need. Here we see the seeds of a domineering, vindictive group culture.
Dodd, on the other hand, is gregarious and charismatic; if the last blonde faded from his hair he’d make a perfect Santa Claus. Where Freddie is fractured and wiry, Dodd is smoothly rotund, exposing only the barest hairline fissures. But more than once we see what happens when something gains purchase in those cracks and pulls back the shell to see what lies molten beneath.
Anderson brings these brilliant performances out of both Phoenix and Hoffman. More than that, though, he brings us stunning images: meticulously crafted, precisely framed to capture Anderson’s famous symmetries, and beautifully rendered to the best of Panavision Super 70’s abilities. To see this film just as a series of pictures is worth the price of admission.
Opinion will be split, though, on the script. I’m convinced that the story is as intricate as the staging, even if I don’t understand it yet. There is meaning, I’m certain, in Phoenix’ face, but I cannot say what that is yet. Maybe this means I’ve been drawn into some cult of personality around Paul Thomas Anderson. But the price of a movie ticket is far less than a life’s savings; if that’s all he asks of me, it’s a price I’m more than willing to pay.
Worth It: absolutely.
Bechdel Test: fail.