Jason Madanjian ‘15 / Emertainment Monthly Staff
After a five year absence, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the big screen with The Master, a polarizing film that tackles religion, war and human nature itself.
Anderson, director behind 2007’s critically acclaimed There Will Be Blood and 90s cult darling Boogie Nights among others, almost fools the audience on the notion that he keeps reinventing himself. After all, how is a movie about the Southern California oil boom of the early 1900s similar to a movie about the porn industry in the 1970s? The complicated answer is that neither of those movies are really about those things.
And that’s where Anderson succeeds. The setting is irrelevant. The genre is too. All that matters are the characters. And in The Master, Anderson has quite the one-two punch in Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an emotionally unbalanced World War II solider struggling to find his new role in society. Hoffman may be his savior as Lancaster Dodd, the eccentric leader of a quasi-religious movement who takes Freddie under his wing.
As Dodd, Hoffman has arguably the easier role of the duo. Or maybe he’s so good and he makes it seem like the easier role. He is commanding as a frustratingly stubborn mortal who’s acquired a taste for God-like status. When he shouts against those that push against him and his beliefs, you become frightened by just how much this man believes and fully embodies the lies he tells.
But Phoenix has a trickier role at hand, playing the explosive and forever lost Quell. Through flashbacks, we see Freddie’s mind disintegrate into confused madness on the beaches of the South Pacific, punctuated more so by Anderson’s hypnotizing camerawork and Jonny Greenwood’s absolutely unnerving and hauntingly plainspoken score.
But what exactly is The Master about? Perhaps, that we all serve someone. Freddie may be dumb struck by the spiel Dodd’s selling to a group of naïve, almost Amish-like folk, but the film also hints that it may be his wife Amy Adam’s silent and all-knowing Peggy Dodd who is truly in control.
Audiences expecting answers will be hard-pressed to find any. No one is cured. No one is persecuted. No one is confronted for their lies or their truths. At one point, Dodd and Quell are thrown into jail. But it does not turn them into reformed men. They will always be who they were born to be. Or as Anderson so disturbingly suggests: who they were born to play.