Every so often a movie comes along that is so good that it feels important. This isn’t because the director is trying to force its importance upon the audience, but because the movie is just so well made on every single level that it feels important, it feels like a movie that will matter for quite some time. Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest work “The Master” is one of these films. I’ve always thought of Anderson as a great director, perhaps one of the greatest contemporary directors, but his screenplays have never quite matched up to the power of his camera for me. “The Master” is an exception; it is truly his masterpiece, everything comes together in a glorious rhapsody that held me completely enthralled, both challenging and entertaining me, which for me is the pinnacle that all movies should hope to achieve.
From the very beginning of the film Joaquin Phoenix’s character Freddie Quell is an intriguing fellow. The performance is as unique as they come; striking a chord that can only be interpreted as being out of step with the rest of us. Quell is a World War II Navy vet who is having trouble readjusting to civilian life, whether he has always been this strange and ill-fitting in society, or if his experiences in the war warped him to this point is never properly explained, we are only given pieces of the puzzle. After his boozing and violence loses him two jobs, he comes across the equally alluring Lancaster Dodd, played with charm and power by Philip Seymour Hoffman, a writer and accused cult leader who becomes fascinated by Quell’s existence. The two become strangely and inseparably connected, much to the chagrin of Dodd’s followers and family, especially his fiercely loyal wife, played by Amy Adams. It’s their relationship that forms core of the film, everything revolves around it, and all of the hopes and dreams of the characters are pinned to it. It’s one of the most compelling relationships I’ve ever seen in a movie.
It’s through this relationship that Anderson expresses his themes, including one of the most important tenants of human nature: our desire to follow a master. Quell is a chaotic man and after escaping from the rigid discipline of military service he discovers that he doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of society. He needs a guiding hand to mold him into a human being. Before meeting Dodd, his actions are animalistic, he thrives on booze, violence and sex. After their relationship begins to develop, he is more subservient, like a lion stripped of its bite by a tamer. Dodd on the other hand puts all of his success as a leader of men on his ability to save Quell; he believes that if he cannot his whole movement will collapse around him. The performances by Phoenix and Hoffman express this dangerous and shaky coexistence perfectly. As Quell, Phoenix hangs on to Dodd’s every word, and if he’s given the slightest doubt that that word isn’t true his world begins to crumble and he slips back into his old ways. Hoffman portrays Dodd as a man who is barely in control of his anger; he too completely latches onto his own words and lashes out at any form of skepticism and contradiction, which is why saving Quell is so vital to him. It would give meaning to his existence and validate his beliefs.
There is a moment in the film when this relationship comes together so perfectly for me that it nearly moved me to tears. Dodd sits for a photograph to be taken by Quell, who comes up to him and meekly adjusts his hair. The two men smile at each other, Quell steps back and Dodd readjusts his hair to his liking, and then strikes a dominating pose. It’s a brief moment, but it expresses everything about their relationship in such a beautiful, visual way. No other form of storytelling could express this moment as well as film. Anderson’s gift lies in creating movies built out of moments like this. His camera moves through his stories with such power and assurance, that you are never in doubt that he is showing you exactly what he wants you to see. Anderson is like Kubrick in this way, perhaps more than any other director living today. He imposes himself on his movies in a way that could serve as a detriment in the hands of a lesser director, but under his guidance it always works in tandem with the emotions he is trying to express through his stories and gives them a breath of life that is always refreshing in today’s cinema. It doesn’t hurt that Anderson shot the film utilizing a beautiful mixture of 35mm and 65mm film stock, giving it a stunning, unique look that still can’t be captured with digital.
Anderson is also like Kubrick in the method he uses to choose music for his movies. He usually goes with a handful of popular and classical songs to accompany the original score, which, like his camerawork, would risk the overall quality of the film if his selections were poor, distracting from the experience rather than enhancing it. Fortunately, his usually pretty sharp and “The Master” is no exception. The lyrics and sound of the popular songs always give an extra layer to the scenes they accompany and contrast nicely with the offbeat original score. This being a period piece these popular songs are all time appropriate which is always a relief, thankfully Anderson isn’t Tarantino. There is a moment when Quell’s sweetheart sings “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me)” to him and it just adds so much to the character, giving all the vicious anti-society bite a softer look that hints back to his personality before the war claimed a piece of his humanity. It’s a sweet, innocent moment that typifies Anderson’s clearly carefully selected music choices. The classical music he uses is often haunting and equally fitting, giving the rather dark story a classy feel that is again, very time appropriate.
The other performances in the film, while never quite as important as Phoenix’s and Hoffman’s, are equally as good, especially Adams, who injects Dodd’s wife with an intense, protective love of her husband and his work. Her outward appearance suggests that she is sweet and doting, a follower like the rest of them. However, behind the scenes she is revealed to be just as devoted to the fight against the naysayers as Dodd, perhaps even more so. She never quite believes in Quell’s salvation, but she does her best help her husband in his quest, if only to make sure that it doesn’t ruin all that they have worked for. She isn’t quite as willing to pin the hope of the movement on Quell. It’s a character that could have easily been swept aside by the mammoth performances of Phoenix and Hoffman, but Adams is strong enough and good enough to overcome that, adding another interesting layer to the pivotal relationship.
“The Master” is more than a sum of its parts. Everything comes together to build a film that is worth watching and thinking about. Every word and action builds compellingly to the film’s conclusion; it really is quite stunning to witness just how harmoniously everything comes together. It’s also surprisingly funny at moments, adding another layer that made it more entertaining that even I expected. It’s a rare treat to watch a film this good, though it’s oddly difficult one to recommend. It’s nearly impossible to explain why, but I can only recommend this movie to certain people, namely those who go to the movies expecting a bit more than mindless escapism. I don’t mean that as a snooty insult, merely as a fact of life. However, for those who do crave for their entertainment to challenge them, I couldn’t recommend “The Master” enough. It’s one of the most compelling arguments in recent years that movies do indeed matter.