At this point, it can be safely said that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of America's most gifted and important filmmakers. THERE WILL BE BLOOD, with some distance from it, can be called a genuine masterpiece. A follow-up from that phenomenal work would likely be more sedate, and THE MASTER certainly falls into that category when it comes to the scale of the film. But the power and emotion of THE MASTER are no less grand.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD was both epic and allegorical in the telling of its story of religion and capitalism, and yet intimate in its examination of a relationship between two driven and flawed men. THE MASTER is similar in that regard; it's also about the struggle of two very flawed men, in conflict and in synchronicity with each other - Freddie Quells (Joaquin Phoenix), a drunken Navy man, face chiseled out of moonrock and sorrow, and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the sun around which many people orbit. Quells is utterly lost at the beginning of the film - once World War II ends, he drifts in and out of various jobs and relationships, drunk on his own homemade hooch most of the time, until in a stupor he stumbles onto a luxury yacht hosting the wedding of Lancaster's daughter. When he wakes in the ship's sleeping quarters, he is led to Dodd, who takes a liking to this brash man, and in particular to his "magical potion."
Lancaster Dodd is also something of an enigma - he is the creator of a new philsophy called "the Cause", which he claims can heal the damaged souls who have suffered over trillions of years ("That's trillion with a T," Dodd tells one skeptic) by past regression therapy. And Freddie is indeed damaged - he's possibly the most damaged man Lancaster has ever met. And as Lancaster's relationship with Freddie grows closer, it gives Lancaster's wife Peggy (Amy Adams) concern - it's possible that Freddie could help destroy everything that Lancaster has built up to this point. The Cause begins to gain new following, and Freddie begins to question not only the dogma but his place in it as well.
This is an incredibly difficult movie to review. There are larger themes in THE MASTER that are so skillfully put into the story and the subtext, but it feels reductive to point at any one particular thing and say that this is what the movie is about. On a personal level, the strongest theme that resonated the most with me was how religion can be used to manipulate the wounded, and at the same time, it can also be something that the wounded can use to truly heal themselves. It's also not as simple as saying that THE MASTER is about a charismatic leader and the people that fall under his sway, because it gets more complicated than that. You could even say that THE MASTER is a movie about parental issues, as Lancaster Dodd begins to take the role of a surrogate father in Freddie's life. Judging from the "daddy issues" that seem to pop up in Paul Thomas Anderson's movies, this is a subject with which he is intimately familiar, but THE MASTER (much like MAGNOLIA) is about moving past the damage that our parents inflict and finding our own place in the world as well.
Joaquin Phoenix has never been better, ever, in any role, than he is in THE MASTER. It's a performance that seems bigger than awards season. This, my friends, is truly one of the best performances I've ever seen from an actor. He's so good that he IS Freddie Quells - a raw nerve that seems to exude the threat of violence and chaos. One particular scene, as Dodd tries to "process" Freddie into the Cause, is one of the most striking face-offs between actors that I can remember. We already know how amazing an actor that Philip Seymour Hoffman is, and he gives no less here, but the audience is simply unable to take their eyes off Phoenix. Amy Adams may have the most difficult job in this one - she doesn't get to rage like Phoenix or Hoffman, but instead she is the steady face of the movement in public, and in private she is a true believer - if not in the Cause, then in the world that Lancaster is trying to build. She's tremendous.
And as Freddie searches for more meaning in his relationship with Lancaster and the movement, Lancaster himself realizes that what he's created may be bigger than he thought. In the end, these two men love each other deeply, like two magnets that repel each other until you flip them over, even as the separate paths that their lives must take guide them into different places. I think THE MASTER is a phenomenal film, easily one of the best of the year, and I can't wait to see it again to dive into it some more. I've read reviews where the writer felt that the movie ended without a true catharsis, but I disagree - THE MASTER, to me, is about the healing power of faith, and also the healing power of putting aside that faith when it begins to trap and confine. Paul Thomas Anderson continues to be one of our very best filmmakers - he has been compared to directors like Robert Altman and Stanley Kubrick, but with THE MASTER, although those influences are apparent, it's obvious now that Paul Thomas Anderson is absolutely in their league. This, like THERE WILL BE BLOOD before it, is a masterpiece.