Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Postwar America feels a little too bright and too white for Freddie Quell's raw soul and libidinous energies; he opens Anderson’s mesmerizing new film with a joke about crabs. Freddie drifts from a psychiatric evaluation in the bewildering aftermath of his military service to a job as a department store photographer, then to moonshine shenanigans gone awry and right on to becoming a kind of rogue bartender on a ship of genteel holy fools—captained by fellow magic-potion-salesman Lancaster Dodd, the bombastic leader of an early-Scientology-like group and one possible master for a self-destructing drifter.
But Anderson’s film is not an exposé of a cult (or an excavation of its history), but rather a twinned, mystical portrait of American individualism from the angles of Dodd as he guides others and, more centrally, of a man who chooses not to master himself as the genial masses might. Triangulate their drives and eccentricities—Freddie, self-appointed as Dodd’s enforcer, streaked with aberration that attracts Dodd as weakness and strength—and perhaps you’d get Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood. But though cast in the same mold of immaculate craft and sharply delineated audiovisual effects, The Master takes a more elliptical path than Anderson's previous feature, casting Freddie’s herky-jerky trajectory as both distinctive to his personality and deeply expressive of a broader heartsick yearning.
Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie is without question the film’s heart: a hunched, sinewy figure, his torso looking like it was put on backwards, Ed Grimley-style, his lined face in frequent shot-from-below close-up, the whole simmering with rough impulses. If Phoenix, coming off a stunt sabbatical, is looking to undertake the same kind of great-works career as Blood's Daniel Day-Lewis, his creation of Freddie bodes well. In fact, Freddie’s prowls and stares, sizing up gatherings and face-offs in primal primate fashion, nearly spoil the viewer for the more recognizably grandiloquent preacher-bully of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd and his wife/handler (Amy Adams), the voice at the back of the room. At first unpredictable in a way that you worry could become actorly and insistent, Phoenix taps into something at once paradigmatically masculine and mysterious, like some lost gnarled Melville character on the ship in The Confidence Man.
Anderson’s sense of a living past in this movie (and the last) is sure and nuanced, a world inhabited rather than staged (to the point that he makes the notion of making movies solely set in the present seem somewhat willful against the vast backdrop of human experience). Shot in what looks like a constrained 70mm image, in which colors and textures strike your eye without a glistening tactility, the film is all the more intensely felt for the subtle ways in which Freddie’s point of view alters its flow of time and imbues even long-shot tableaux with obscure and muted emotions: the outsider veteran back in society, a conduit for desire and violence. A testament to Anderson’s own strange (in this day) focus, The Master wends its way toward a conclusion with weight and poignant intimacy; it's more musical in its spiritual and psychological movements than dramatic.
Opens September 14