Paul Thomas Anderson strikes me as one of those Hollywood auteurs whose early successes led to a lack of mitigation in their later work. While his films are always interesting and often quite compelling, everything he’s done since Boogie Nights has felt a little bloated to me, a little too in love with itself. And yet, without that unfettered creative freedom would we have Anderson’s peculiar film The Master (2012)? I wonder.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a boozing, sex-crazed Navy veteran who returns from the Pacific after World War II, traumatized and out of place in his own country. Quell’s struggle to find a life for himself takes several wrong turns until, in 1950, he stumbles into the life of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a blustery writer and self-help guru. Dodd immediately pegs Quell as a “scoundrel,” but takes a shine to him and absorbs him into his dubious, Scientology-like movement, “the Cause.” Quell may be his most hopeless case, but Dodd runs him through his program tirelessly. Quell’s desperate need to believe in his possible transformation is constantly threatened by increasing challenges to the validity of Dodd’s ideas.
The Master is a tricky read, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, except that it strikes me – like much of Anderson’s work – as a veiled critique of American society. There’s an interesting corollary between this film and Boogie Nights, actually. Like Dirk Diggler, Quell is self-unaware, embracing a system of living that puffs up his sense of importance and his hope without noticing that he’s balancing atop a house of cards. Quell is surrounded by similarly delusional people, but worse, he’s surrounded by people so jaded that they know they’re swimming in bullshit but pretend they don’t notice. In Boogie Nights, the party crashes to a halt when the phoniness underneath the industry emerges. Something similar happens in The Master, as Quell’s faith is tested not long after it’s formed.
Without preaching, the film makes for an engrossing arthouse commentary, raising interesting questions as to message and meaning. Is it 30-40 minutes too long? As with most of Anderson’s films, I think so. But his deliberate, stylized pacing has powerful effects at times, and it’s enhanced throughout by an eery, atmospheric score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, that I think is kind of a masterpiece. (There are stretches of film here that are immeasurably improved by the odd, classical-jazz ambience of the soundtrack.) And of course, the acting is superb. Phoenix gives a disturbingly immersive performance, and the great Hoffman brings his usual brilliance to the table. The rest of the supporting cast is excellent, including the underutilized Amy Adams. The overall verdict: a worthy , thought-provoking film, though overlong and requiring occasional patience.