Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams star in The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest and perhaps best feature film yet. Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an idiosyncratic, alcoholic WWII Naval veteran who, in his drunken wanderings, stumbles onto a yacht about to set sail. There, he is introduced to the yacht’s owners, the Dodds — Lancaster (Hoffman) and his wife Peggy (Adams) — and their controversial, Scientology-like philosophy called The Cause: the idea that a person’s soul has moved from body to body through time for trillions of years.
Freddie Quell is a shocking character. Within the first five minutes of being on screen, he describes to someone how to remove crabs from one’s testicles (his advice involves a razor, a lighter, and an ice pick) and pretends to have sex with a sand sculpture of a naked women (and then leaves to go masturbate into the ocean). He is crass and utterly sex-crazed, trying to seduce almost every woman he meets. He is also a severe alcoholic, willing to drink any liquid with an alcohol content, and he specializes in creating alcoholic concoctions so potent that they can kill a man. Freddie lives in a state of volatility, constantly erupting into emotional, violent outbursts, willing to pick a fight in any context.
Phoenix’s performance is utterly compelling. He seems to go beyond acting and simply becomes this character, right down to his physicality — thin, hunched over, his face lined. He mumbles and slurs his words together. He smiles childishly when he is proud, and he flails his skinny limbs at anyone who comes near when he is angry. Phoenix is able to achieve a performance that is both overstated and subtle, both caricatural and believable.
Hoffman’s acting does not suffer by comparison. Lancaster — or “The Master”, as he is called by the followers of The Cause — speaks formally and elegantly, a stark contrast to Freddie’s coarse vernacular. He is a man who values his own intellect and who is passionate about his ideas. He is charismatic and confident, and he takes himself extremely seriously (and is at times almost laughable for this reason). But he is also sincere, and his moments of vulnerability make him both interesting and sympathetic.
The collision of these two characters is the collision of the animalistic and the cerebral. Lancaster is recorded as saying that man is not an animal; man transcends the animal kingdom. The entire philosophy of The Cause centers on the concept of the soul moving beyond its corporal limitations. Freddie, on the other hand, is an utterly physical being. He is sexual, emotional, violent. There is a tension when these two forces come together, and also an attraction. Lancaster frequently scolds Freddie for his unrefined behavior. After Freddie picks a fight with a man who has insulted Lancaster, Lancaster calls Freddie “naughty” and compares him to an animal that eats its own feces when hungry. At the same time, however, Lancaster also seems somehow moved by Freddie. He enjoys Freddie’s toxic concoctions, and he begins writing his second book around the time of their introduction. As his wife Peggy points out, Freddie seems to “inspire something in him”.
It is through Lancaster’s eyes that we begin to appreciate and like Freddie. He assesses a real value to Freddie, which mystifies both his family and (at least at first) the viewer. Lancaster invites Freddie to participate in some “casual processing”, which consists of a series of questions through which Freddie will become more in touch with his transcendent soul. In this scene, an initial bond forms not only between Freddie and Lancaster, but also between Freddie and the audience, as we see a vulnerable side to him that up until this point has not been apparent.
As the film progresses, the bond between the two men grows stronger, and there are even hints of romantic tension between them. Freddie picks a fight with a cop to defend Lancaster, and Lancaster desperately begs the cops “not to hurt him”. When reunited after a night in the police station, Freddie and Lancaster’s embrace crumples into a rolling, tumbling, full-body hug. Lancaster hires Freddie to take professional photographs of him, and Freddie pushes Lancaster’s hair out of his face in a motion that is almost a caress. The homoerotic suggestions are there, but they seem to go deeper than sexuality. There is a sense that the two men’s souls have found kinship in each other, and while that can be confused with romantic love, at least on Freddie’s end those feelings do not seem to be there. Lancaster’s feelings are more ambiguous, and there is a question of whether he is too afraid to act — too afraid to engage with his animal side, his emotions and his physical urges.
Throughout the film Freddie seems to be searching for something, and it is unclear whether he will find it in The Cause. The use of the word “master” is significant, applying not only to Lancaster’s position as the head of The Cause, but also to his position as Freddie’s master. Lancaster feels an urge to “help” Freddie, and in the process of doing so he takes control over him, subjecting him to a series of tests and exercises. Earlier, when both men find themselves in the police station — the screen split between Freddie thrashing about, handcuffed, kicking the toilet bowl until it shatters, pounding his head repeatedly against the upper bunk; and Lancaster standing stoically, leaning against the upper bunk in his own cell — Lancaster points out Freddie’s fear of being imprisoned. He asserts that this fear of imprisonment is an essential part of Freddie’s immortal soul. Ultimately, Freddie must decide whether The Cause is the answer to his searching, or just another form of imprisonment. As Peggy Dodd tells him fiercely, The Cause is not something to be handled casually. “This is something you do for a billion years, or not at all.”
This is a compelling and original film. The writing is smart, the acting is superb, and it all comes together in the end in a mysteriously satisfying way… even if you leave the theater not quite sure of what you just experienced.