“The Master, isn’t that the Scientology movie I keep hearing about?” This might be something you hear when speaking with your average movie-goer about Paul Thomas Anderson’s bold, new accomplishment. For me, this is one of the simplest yet complex stories I’ve ever seen. Anderson’s movies have always been less about an actual narrative and more of a character study on the human condition. This is a fascinating film to watch for many reasons - reasons that may not be understood at first, or at all, but reasons that are sure to make you think for the next couple days.
Since the acting is the strongest part of the film, let’s tackle that first. As the end credits started to roll, I uttered the words, “Give Joaquin Phoenix the freakin’ Oscar.” I felt so strongly about this because he gives the strongest and most entertaining performance of the entire year and he surely deserves the utmost recognition for his work. Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a mentally unstable war veteran who tries to find his way in the world after his painful experiences abroad. Freddie takes on many odd jobs, including as a photographer and a farm hand. Phoenix plays Freddie with a great amount of unpredictability. Watching his facial expressions and the way he interacts with others, you can’t tell if he’s going to break into tears, laughter or go into an angry rampage. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a talented actor as well, and he plays the religious leader, Lancaster Dodd, to perfection. These two men meet up and have an instant connection to each other. So much so, that Lancaster takes Freddie under his wing as his apprentice and tried to release him from his demons while making him a valued member of his made up, cult-like religion called, “The Cause”.
Some will argue that the film doesn’t go anywhere, that things are happening on screen, but the story never progresses and the characters never grow. The story, I found to be very simple, but the characters in it are complex. It’s a story on finding our place in the world. Freddie is a confused man, that much is true. He goes from place to place like a piece in a puzzle that can’t find where it’s supposed to fit. Once Dodd takes him in, Freddie feels like he has been accepted and has somewhere he can call home. I think we all feel this way now and then. We sometimes doubt who we are and why we’re here. The story is about Freddie and his journey through life. The glue that holds it together is the relationship between the two lead men. The connection they share and experiences they had is what drives the movie and makes it wonderful to watch unfold.
Another thing you will hear often is that this is a film about Scientology. Really, this is an ignorant claim considering there are many layers to the film besides the religious component. Yes, there are many similarities and details on the origin of Scientology, but in the grand scheme of things, “The Cause” plays such a small role in the movie’s overall theme that someone shouldn’t be turned off based on this part alone. “The Cause” acts as a safe haven for Freddie. It’s a group where he feels accepted and wanted, even if he doesn’t fully understand their methods or practices. Had this been a movie about Dodd being the main character, you can bet the themes of the story would be quite different, but this is Freddie’s journey, and religion is not the only cog in his machine.
Paul Thomas Anderson makes his films memorable by composing beautiful images that stay with you for a long time. Every time a shot of water hitting a boat came on screen, my eyes would explode with joy because of how good it looked. The combination of psychedelic music and the saturated colors on set gave some scenes a dream-like feel and made everything wonderful to watch. I strongly believe that you could take a still from every shot and it would be strong enough, and worthy enough, to hang in a museum for all to enjoy.
While there was nothing in the film that kept me from loving it, there were still some very small issues none the less. The pacing got to me a little bit. I don’t need a fast paced film all the way through, but some of the scenes were so noticeably slow I was thinking, “Alright, move it along now.” Some scenes go on a little too long, ultimately losing effectiveness. Also, I didn’t feel very emotionally invested while watching it. It had tons of emotion in it, but instead of giving the audience a chance to get involved with the story, we are forced to take a backseat just observe.
Besides a few dry spots, this is a real treat for serious movie lovers. It’s an art house film that not everyone will love, but I feel everyone should see it anyway for the chance to dissect these amazing performances and for the experience of reflecting on it as a whole. Take it for the brainy work that it is and watch a real “Master”, in Paul Thomas Anderson, at work.
*Fun Fact*: Jeremy Renner was originally signed on to play Freddie, until the role ultimately went to Joaquin Phoenix.