It has been five years since we witnessed Daniel Day-Lewis put on a clinic about on-screen intensity (while also creating a short-lived internet meme about drinking everyone’s milkshake). That was in the last film from critically acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson, who burst into the Hollywood spotlight with Boogie Nights, (which he followed up by the epic oddity of Magnolia and dark humor of Punch-Drunk Love). While Anderson’s movies have a tendency to elicit extreme reactions from viewers – both positive and negative in equal amounts – it is never in question whether you will get something worth talking about. If there is a genre for coffee-table, quiet café discussion directors, Anderson would reign over it as its modern-day king.
Anderson’s newest project is The Master follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a perpetual drunk with no direction in life who literally stumbles into the calm clutches of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is a new-age cult leader who sees something in Freddie worth molding and sculpting. Dodd turns Freddie Quell into his prodigy with mixed results, often creating a battle not only between Quell’s lightning-quick rage and his sanity, but also between Dodd and his own followers. It all intensifies as Dodd’s following grows ever larger but more skeptical about whether what the man preaches is real or just a story he lost the thread to years ago.
The real impact of the film comes from the performances. Anderson, in my eyes, has been an actor’s director from day one. He is someone who will create amazingly beautiful and poignant scenes where these brilliant moments can live and breathe. Once you add in a cast of extremely talented actors, as exists in The Master, you know what you are about to experience is worth the ticket price.
Hoffman and Phoenix put on a virtual master class in acting. It feels like a piece of prime theater, paced with precision and directed with wonderful simplicity. Phoenix reportedly studied caged animals at the zoo in order to bring that physical quality to Quell’s nervous posture. It has worked wonders for him because there are only rare moments when you aren’t holding your breath waiting for him to explode. Hoffman also displays the potential for violence, but it is handled with much more grace and charm. He brings forth a man with a world of his own creation on his shoulders, beaming with pride, yet weakened by the weight of it all.
My main issue with the film didn’t appear until after I had finished watching it and I began to wonder what the story really was about. What was the point of it all? Was there a message in the madness of Quell or the mastery of Dodd? People can easily debate this, but it feels as if Quell makes no real change from the beginning to the end. Dodd surely changes, at least in his circumstances, but it’s not completely clear if changes occur in any other way to him or Quell.
In the end, it is amazingly portrayed, but woefully told.