Paul Thomas Anderson‘s newest film since 2007’s There Will Be Blood is The Master, a piece that, I think, turns out to be a little less inscrutable than it initially appears. It features a formidable Joaquin Phoenix, returning to acting for the first time since his “retirement” as depicted in the fake documentary I’m Still Here. He makes up the marginally larger half of what is essentially a two-man drama–the other being Philip Seymour Hoffman. Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a man returning to civilian life after serving in the Navy in the Pacific in World War II. Plagued with difficulties–possibly post-traumatic stress from the war, possibly something older and deeper–he stumbles into the path of Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, leader of an emergent post-War cult which is more than a little reminiscent of L. Ron Hubbard‘s Scientology.
This is one of those movies about which I could probably ramble on, well past the threshold of your patience. Then again, I suspect this is also one of those movies which might frustrate some viewers on its own. I wonder if the central theme for Anderson is not so much mental illness, or sexuality, or alcoholism, or religion, but the power and ultimate hollowness of charisma. Lancaster Dodd (much as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood) has charisma to spare, but when his nascent religion is unexpectedly called upon to actually reform a genuinely troubled individual, he comes up short. His spiritual truth isn’t inscribed on ancient candle-lit parchment, it’s sketched out on graph paper under fluorescent lights. He certainly talks up a storm and plays the know-it-all. We can see through the facade, but Anderson wants it to be intimidating to do so.
The camera gets a lot of mileage out of Phoenix’s face, which he contorts into all manner of tortured grooves and hollows. His physical performance on the whole is quite effective, all stooped shoulders, jittery delayed reactions and sudden violence. Hoffman is great as always, though less a chameleon–we see his familiar smirks and occasional spitting rage at anyone who deigns to point out any inconsistency in his gospel. Amy Adams was nominated for an Oscar for her turn as Dodd’s ambitious wife/strategist. She’s excellent (and a wee bit frightening) in the role, but we really only get a few tastes of her in the forefront.
This is indeed a film that might puzzle or irritate some viewers. Its emotional tone oscillates between anxious and cool, its lead characters are neither of them especially sympathetic, and it challenges the deepest spiritual beliefs (essentially) of a number of beloved Hollywood icons. But it’s beautifully shot (the first film in years to be shot on 65mm film and without any digital color timing). The result is crisp, cool, and just enigmatic enough to keep the discussion going for a while. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
DVD Release Date: 2/26/13