By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 29, 2012)
Starring Montgomery Clift and Charles Laughton (?)
The characters and events depicted in this photoplay are fictitious. Any similarities to actual persons, living or dead are purely coincidental
(Standard end of film disclaimer)
“Comparisons are not invariably odious, but they are often misleading,” Orson Welles once wrote, in reference to the debate over whether or not the many parallels in his film Citizen Kane to the real life story of William Randolph Hearst and the rise of his powerful publishing empire were purely coincidental. It is quite possible that current and future generations of critics and audiences will engage in similar debate regarding the parallels in writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master to the life of L. Ron Hubbard and the founding of his Church of Scientology. Neither the church nor Anderson have confirmed or denied.
Despite the number of “coincidences”, the answer to the most obvious question is, “no”. This is neither a hagiography nor a smack down of any specific doyen or belief system (thinly disguised or otherwise). Anyone who would pigeonhole the film with such a shallow reading likely has not seen it (or is perhaps unfamiliar with certain themes running through all of Anderson’s films). What he has crafted is a thought-provoking and original examination of why human beings in general are so prone to kowtow to a burning bush, or an emperor with no clothes. Is it a spiritual need? Is it an emotional need? Or is it a lizard brain response, deep in our DNA?
As Inspector Clouseau once ruminated, “Well you know, there are leaders…and there are followers.” At its most rudimentary level, The Master is a two-character study about a leader and a follower (and metaphorically, all leaders and followers). It’s also a story about a complex surrogate father-son relationship (one of those aforementioned recurring themes in Anderson’s oeuvre; more on that in a moment). Anderson frames his narrative using the zeitgeist of America’s existential post-war malaise, in the person of ex-sailor Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix).
Socially withdrawn, prone to dipsomania, odd sexual compulsions and unpredictable fits of rage, Freddie’s transition back to civilian life has not been a smooth one. His character embodies many traits of the quintessential “disillusioned vet” protagonist that fueled post-war noirs like Act of Violence, Thieves’ Highway, The Blue Dahlia, Ride the Pink Horse and High Wall (in fact, The Master vibes overall with the verisimilitude of some great lost genre film of the late 40s or early 50s).
Freddie’s laundry list of personality disorders has not endeared him to the 5 o’clock world; he drifts from job to job. He hits rock bottom after his indirect responsibility for a tragic mishap has him literally fleeing for his life from a work site. Desperate to get out of Dodge and headed for a meltdown, Freddy skulks in the shadows of a San Francisco marina, where he crashes a shipboard wedding party, hoping to blend in with the revelers and then stow away.
The ship, a converted cattle trawler rechristened the Aletheia, is captained by the father of the bride, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is a self-described writer/doctor/nuclear physicist/ philosopher and “hopelessly inquisitive man.” (if he were to take up guitar and form a rock band, he’d be Buckaroo Banzai). He is also a burgeoning cult leader; the boat is chock-a-block with devotees in thrall with Dodd and his philosophy, referred to as The Cause (the tenets have been laid out in Dodd’s eponymous book).
Initially, the paranoid Dodd admonishes his uninvited guest (suspecting him to be some manner of government spook assigned to infiltrate and/or sabotage his organization); but instead of giving him the heave-ho, “something” compels him to do a sudden 180 and invite the twitchy and troubled Freddie along for an imminent (Homeric?) ocean voyage with his family and followers to New York (some shades of The Stuntman).
And so begins the life-altering relationship between the two men, which vacillates tenuously between master/servant, mentor/apprentice, and father/son (the latter recalling Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly in Hard Eight, Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, Tom Cruise and Jason Robards in Magnolia, and Daniel Day-Lewis and Dillon Freasier/Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood). It’s also the catalyst for two of the most fearless and extraordinary performances that I have seen this year.
Not to denigrate Hoffman, who is mesmerizing as always; nor fine supporting performances from Amy Adams (as Dodd’s subtly controlling wife, who plays a sort of Livia to his Augustus), Laura Dern, or Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons , but Phoenix in particular has really hit one out of the park, achieving an Oscar-worthy transformation. I don’t know if this was by accident or by design, but I swear he is channeling Montgomery Clift, not only replicating his acting tics and vocal inflection, but his physicality (right down to the hunched shoulders and sunken chest-it is downright eerie).
The film is beautifully shot in 65mm by DP Mihai Malainare, Jr. (try to catch it in a 70mm presentation if you can), and nicely scored by Jonny Greenwood. Those with short attention spans are warned: This film demands your full attention (and begs repeated viewings). It’s exhilarating, audacious, and while at times a bit baffling, it is never dull.