Title: The Master
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek, Kevin J. O’Connor, and Laura Dern
The search for the stability in an unstable world seems like a fool’s errand, but everyone needs to feel a connection to something even if it’s a phony one. The lonely search for family feels at odds with the nature of existence. But to examine what makes us long for this connection is the mystery of life and why humanity needs something like religion, families, or companionship.
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, “The Master,” he deeply explores these themes of loneliness with two characters; the first is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic veteran unwilling to face life and the other is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a new religious movement who needs to validate his beliefs through the helpless. Overall the film plays a keen game of follow the leader and the aftermath of the stubbornness of man.
From the beginning of the film, Anderson reveals he is the master of his surroundings by creating a tone that engages an audience with rhythm and pacing through Jonny Greenwood’s layered score. Much like Terrence Malick, Anderson puts together a film with remarkable visual thematic and tonal storytelling. There’s not much to the narrative itself, a drifter meets a religious huckster and they both use each other to gain some sort of stability in their lives or movement. But “The Master” is more than its narrative; it’s a film of performance, vision, and unease. It reminds us why we believe what we believe without it being judgmental or accusing.
The search for a surrogate family is a theme Anderson often explores and goes back to his first film “Hard Eight.” In that film from 1996, an aged gambler named Sydney takes a young man named John under his wing. They form a family based on mutual necessity, Sydney needs to atone for his past and John needs to learn to be self-reliant. In “The Master,” mutual necessity is key to understanding how and why these characters interact and confront each other. Freddie is aimless and needs stability and Lancaster needs validation. Both men, to their core, believe they are despicable and unworthy of solace, but they try so hard that it eventually boils over. But unlike Anderson’s last film, “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master” ends with uncertainty as our two character’s roles have reversed. Anderson is illustrating that there is no salvation but only a continuation of life.
Anderson expresses all of this with his camera. “The Master” is shot in magnificent 70mm, which gives it grandeur and luxury. This is a film about faces, whether it’s Quell’s sneering lips and hunched over posture, Dodd’s charismatic smile, or Dodd’s wife, Peggy’s (Amy Adams), piercing and judging eyes, Anderson chooses to highlight these features across the frame and on the screen. It feels as if the film is offering itself to the audience, inviting them to engage with it. Structurally the film seems conventional on the surface but in reality, the film’s scenes feel as if they can be placed in any order and at any time. This gives the film a feeling of fuzzy memory as if we’re just waking up from a recent informal processing from Dodd himself. “What did I just watch?” is something you may say after watching “The Master,” as you try to recall how this film fits together.