Writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson has explored the tumultuous psyches of powerful men since he stormed onto the Hollywood scene with 1997’s Boogie Nights.
He hit a career high point with 2007’s There Will be Blood, which is considered by many professional critics to be one of the best films of the new millennium.
Anderson presents us now with his follow-up, The Master. It lacks the coherency of his previous films, but it retains the mesmerizing qualities that make Anderson a true “master” of filmmaking.
The Master follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a Navy man who seems to be stuck in a perpetual state of sexual immaturity. When he’s not working an odd job, he’s caressing the grainy curves of a naked woman that he molded from sand on a beach. This objectification of women highlights Quell’s need for guidance in his life.
One night, Quell sneaks onto a boat to steal supplies. It is here that he meets Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a growing religious group. Instead of banishing Quell from the vessel, Dodd welcomes him with open arms.
Quell quickly becomes a prominent member of Dodd’s group. Dodd as well as his wife Peggy – Amy Adams, in an electrifying performance – lead the followers in various exercises.
One activity involves communicating with past lives in a one-on-one session. These pseudo-religious aspects of the film are believed to be social commentary on Scientology, the religion made famous by actor Tom Cruise.
One of the most cerebral elements of the film is Anderson’s use of land versus sea as a visual metaphor for Quell’s internal struggle. The first shot of the movie is of water, churning as a ship off screen moves through the sea.
This theme continues throughout the first half of the film, as Quell is almost always found on either the beach or a boat. It accentuates the uncertainty and meaninglessness of his life. He can’t stay on solid ground and instead drifts from place to place hoping to find peace.
Immediately after Dodd and Quell have a breakthrough session, in which Quell admits a disturbing affair, the group leaves the boat and the rest of the film is almost exclusively on land. One scene actually occurs in a desert, which serves as a complement to the film’s watery beginnings.
Visual elements such as this prove Anderson’s capabilities as a director. He allows every element of a scene – the striking soundtrack, props and camera movements – to interact with the story and characters. It makes for an engaging viewing experience. It also compensates for when the plot begins to drag in certain areas.
At the heart of the film is the relationship between Quell and Dodd. The two become dependent upon each other. The power struggle between them is engrossing because both Hoffman and Phoenix give riveting performances.
Phoenix is able to make Quell endearing, even when he appears unbalanced and deranged. Hoffman is so compelling as Dodd that his fanatical following is perfectly understandable.
The Master is a brilliant exercise in directing and acting. It’s the kind of movie that requires repeat viewing. Every nuanced detail of the film has meaning and purpose. Come award season, The Master will certainly be one of the most discussed movies of the year.