Lead or follow. At one time or another some puffed up authority figure has pointed to these as your two options in life. Not both, and certainly not neither. With this edict comes the implication that a leader is what you should want to be. Leaders are powerful and impressive, and followers are simply everyone else. While the world tends to consist of only leaders and followers, the idea that we can and should choose our path is tradition. The Master is flooded with followers and the leaders who lead them, but even more so with the notion that these roles are changeable. In every leader resides a follower, and vice versa, and the side we show is ultimately a product of the other person in the room. This may seem like a minor epiphany, but as Paul Thomas Anderson proves in his latest opus, it can change the way you view the world, and it can change the way the world views you.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a creature somewhere on the spectrum between animal and man. He walks like a man, and talks like one, but he seems incapable of self-control, or even self-awareness. He wanders from place to place, job to job, regularly supplying his brain with cocktails of alcohol and household chemicals. To forget perhaps, or simply to get stoned. It’s not clear, to him or us. And then one day his path crosses with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man so self-aggrandizing it’s hard not to take him seriously. Dodd is The Master of The Cause, a kind of faith-based science that can build a bridge through time and cure cancer. And born of this meeting is a stubborn link between two men who share no real connection save their violent infatuation with one another. Dodd makes Freddie his project, and Freddie makes Dodd his sage.
It becomes clear fairly early on that P.T. was mum on the Scientology issue not because he wanted to avoid heat from the group, but because the connection between Dodd and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard isn’t so much about Scientology. Anderson’s interest in Hubbard’s story has very little to do with the veracity of Hubbard’s work or religion, as he’s far more intrigued by the Leader/Follower dynamic and its connection to faith. Followers of Lancaster Dodd–and L. Ron Hubbard, so far as I can tell–are eager to indulge the whims of the Master’s ego, creating a relationship that verges on cultish and fanatical. Watching a single man manipulate roomfuls of people is fascinating, particularly when the views are so eccentric and the followers so willing. This is at the heart of P.T. Anderson’s latest film, this obsessive devotion to a spiritual leader. In particular, the friction it creates when he comes across a mind far too volatile to mold.
That volatile mind belonging to Freddie Quell; the battered, manic Navy vet who seems dimly aware that he’s not like the rest of us, but apathetic to the reason why. Dodd sees something special in Freddie, which reveals as much about the former as it does about the latter, as Freddie is a decidedly unhinged person. Much of the first act follows Freddie Quell making his way through post-war America, mixing paint thinner and darkroom chemicals with whatever liquor is handy, losing jobs, trying to get laid, blacking out. In general The Master is more dedicated to its characters and their particular traits and qualities than the plot. At times the film can feel like a Salinger novel, with long expository scenes devoted solely to getting at the heart of Dodd or Freddie. This is important to understand coming into the film, because Anderson is ultimately telling the story of these two men. He has brought these two characters into existence just so we could watch them bounce off of each other, and that sits front and center in The Master. If it helps, think of this as Paul Thomas Anderson’s attempt at a bromance.
Of course, in place of “bros” he has harnessed two of the most talented actors working today. If you can’t think of any other reason to go see The Master, do it to see two performances that are guaranteed to be nominated on Oscar night. Philip Seymour Hoffman shows exceptional understanding of Lancaster Dodd, and in particular Anderson’s intentioned ambiguity of the character. Similar to There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview, Dodd is political, but without all the madness and paranoia. Sometimes Dodd is clinically manipulative and controlled, other times he is puzzling and unconvincing. Sometimes he’s just hammered. Yet he is a cohesive personality, and expertly constructed. In fact, it should tell you just how good Joaquin Phoenix is that he so brightly outshines Hoffman’s performance. Put simply, this is the best thing Phoenix has ever done, and it’s not even close. Freddie Quell is, by design, fuller than Lancaster Dodd, and Anderson and Phoenix are intent on exploring the subtleties of the character. This results in a variety of scenes wherein Freddie is simply existing. We see his desolate, debaucherous days in the Navy, and his half-hearted adjustment to the world when he returns to it. Once he has become a part of the Master’s inner circle, we understand the mental and emotional dissonance he feels in trying to live by the tenets of the Cause, and the weakness of will that has been and always will be his undoing. Through all of this, through the whole film, Joaquin Phoenix is contorting himself into a vulgar aberration that remains somehow tepidly endearing. Much the way you recognize the base innocence of a wild animal, Freddie Quell is a creature who simply cannot help himself. The mania that Phoenix keeps perpetually below the surface, unleashed here and there in startling eruptions of violence and hysteria, amounts to some of the finest acting you’ll ever see.
The Master might not compete with There Will Be Blood, but that’s only because they’re very different films. Blood is about the persistent competition of men, while The Master has more to say about mankind’s need to be both followed and a follower; a drive that brings with it all kinds of peaks and valleys. And sure, the structure is loose, and the film can feel a bit incomplete, but a harder structure could have been a hindrance to such a character-driven story, and I thoroughly expect the film itself to fill out with repeated viewings. Which there will be, as this is the kind of movie you vow to show your kids one day. It’s beautifully shot and composed, and brings to mind other performance-based triumphs like Midnight Cowboy or Raging Bull. The elite class of Directors are the guys who consistently make must-see films. Films that insert themselves into the timeline. Can there be any doubt that Paul Thomas Anderson is officially one of those guys?