I haven’t seen Inherent Vice yet (god-willing I will have seen it by the time you are reading this), but I hope it signals a new direction for Paul Thomas Anderson, not because I am tired of his examination of the darkness in solitary men, but because he has so perfectly examined this in his previous three films. Punch-Drunk Love‘s Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) has a boiling rage that is finally ameliorated when he finds another person with whom to share his life. There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) tries to do the same, but his overwhelming greed is too much to bear. But what of the two main characters in The Master? Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) battle the same darkness as these other men, but head-on. Is the outlook for them any better than that for Daniel Plainview?
Freddie is a World War II veteran whose resulting “nervous condition” makes it difficult for him to return to normal life after the war. He sustains his alcohol dependence by concocting makeshift moonshine out of whatever he can get his hands on, and he drifts from job to job, usually when his violent temper makes such exodus a necessity. In his aimless wandering he finds himself on a yacht captained by Dodd, the head of cult-like movement known as “The Cause.” Dodd’s followers call him “Master,” and he purports to help them uncover the memories of their past lives in an effort to overcome their animalistic tendencies. Dodd takes an instant liking to Freddie (and his homemade booze), and attempts to bring him into the fold. Freddie doesn’t follow too easily, though, a fact that is not lost on Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams), and as the two men get closer their darknesses rub together in a way that Peggy can no longer control.
Phoenix turns in a performance similar to Day-Lewis’s in There Will Be Blood. He displays total physical commitment, and the mental and emotional investment is obvious in his quieter scenes, such as when Master “processes” Freddie with probing and unpleasant questions. Phoenix becomes the character – hunched over awkwardly and mumbling constantly. He laughs and smiles when he thinks it is appropriate, but when that moment passes and cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare, Jr.’s camera stays on his face, it reverts back to a pained grimace. We see his isolation in these moments, especially compared to the ease with which Dodd floats among his company.
But perhaps there is more to Lancaster Dodd than Freddie sees at first. Sure, he is a strong presence and a charismatic leader. But while Peggy views Freddie as a beastly pet, and assumes that Lancaster does as well, the friendship between the two is far more co-dependent. Lancaster himself is a dichotomy, preaching abstinence from those things that take away human control, while at the same time indulging in Freddie’s wares. He has yet to tame his own animal, and in the moments where it bursts forth – calling a questioning skeptic (the late Christopher Evan Welch) a “pig fuck,” stooping to Freddie’s level during a jail cell argument, screaming at a devoted follower (an unfortunately underused Laura Dern) who doesn’t understand the new direction of The Cause – Hoffman becomes another man entirely.
I haven’t written too much about Hoffman in these reviews, despite how intertwined his and Anderson’s careers were up to this point. Perhaps it is still too difficult, as the actor’s untimely passing continues to be a great loss. But if anything shows how amazing he was, it is his work with Anderson. It is hard to believe how much range Hoffman displays in five movies with the writer-director. As a pompous gambler in a bit part in Hard Eight, an incredibly insecure but well-meaning boom operator in Boogie Nights, the beating heart of a huge ensemble in Magnolia, an aggressive mattress salesman-cum-phone sex magnate in Punch-Drunk Love, and a leader of men and women who faces inner torture here – he is fully convincing in each. This re-watch was as much about Hoffman as it was about Anderson, and I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to accomplish it.
With such strong perfroamces at the head of The Master, a lot of really interesting bits of this universe are teased without ever being fully explored. Dodd’s daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) marries Clark (Rami Malek) early on, but sees a dark and mysterious appeal in Freddie. Dodd’s son Val (Jesse Plemons) resents his father for making all of this Cause business up as he goes along, yet follows the man just as faithfully as the believers. The short-shrift received by these characters is disappointing, but Anderson’s film is so much about Freddie and Dodd that is doesn’t matter. Phoenix’s impenetrability is another matter. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in There Will Be Blood was intense, but relatable. Phoenix taps into something so personal here that it is incredibly difficult to understand Freddie and why he puts up with all of the confusion and abuse, at least until the end.
The Master is about two men trying to free themselves from the very concept in the title. Freddie actively rebels against masters of any kind, but he cannot escape the darkness inside of him, which dictates his actions. Dodd is stuck with the darkness, as well as his responsibility to the work that he has created and the wife who has such aspirations for him and his movement. It is clear that both men would be much happier together, away from everything else, but that just isn’t a possibility. So they seek their solace in other ways – Dodd by embracing his masters, and Freddie by returning to his hometown and facing his darkness. The Master is another whole work from Anderson, and while it cannot be as engrossing as There Will Be Blood (what can?), it is certainly a little more optimistic. Where the main characters in Paul Thomas Anderson’s darkness trilogy are concerned, Freddie Quell may not end up as happy as Barry Egan, but his future is brighter than Daniel Plainview’s. That is something for which he can be thankful.