The Master may not be my favorite film of the year (that honor is being held by Lincoln at the moment), but it certainly is the film that I would want to talk about the most. I feel this is because that the movie is incredibly challenging. Not in the sense that it is difficult to understand, but it is perhaps more about comprehending what I've watched and being able to have my brain digest the experience.
I can say without a doubt that the movie is an intensive character study. If I were to compare its auteur writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson to his idol and teacher Robert Altman, I'd be quick to point out that Altman also made many different kind of films. PTA (as Anderson is often called by his fans) started out making large ensemble movies like Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia. The first two do have central characters, but they have a lot more speaking roles and tangents in them than say in Anderson's There Will Be Blood (with Punch-Drunk Love perhaps functioning as a transition piece in that it has the flavor of Boogie Nights or Magnolia, but its focus doesn't waver much from Adam Sandler's character). The Master is much more along the lines of There Will Be Blood and it would be more like Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller rather than his Nashville, A Wedding, or Short Cuts.
Although the central character of The Master is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), the character study is twofold in how Freddie is compared to the supporting character of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Where Freddie is the beatnik, Hoffman is the intellectual. They are the complete opposite of the same common ideal of what a proud American should be: the do-it-yourself man who works hard on the floor or the guy who has risen to the office that looks down on that said floor as he enjoys economical success. That analogy being said, the world of The Master is much bigger than a warehouse. It begins on a boat.
When we first meet Freddie, he has come home from serving in World War II and some of the first behaviors we witness of the man include making a cocktail out of fuel, humping the body of a woman made out of sand on a beach, and just flat-out not understanding a series of questions by a psychiatrist that tells the audience that Freddie suffers from PTSD. Freddie has moved from the physical battles of war to return home to what will be a battle of his own mind. Freddie drunkenly wanders onto the yacht belongong to Dodd, who decides to welcome Freddie into his fold instead of casting him out. Who exactly is Dodd? "I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, and a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you," he says to Freddie.
Lancaster engages with Freddie in a question and answer session before Freddie finds himself joining Lancaster's group, only known as "The Cause". The session delves into life traumas belonging to Freddie including a past relationship and little-by-little his masculinity is laid bare. What is so interesting is despite how Lancaster's love-hate relationship with Freddie progresses, his own front of a personality is ripped into as well. The possibility that Dodd is a fraud who may or may not truly believe in half of what he is spouting begins to dawn on the audience and then along comes the third part of the film's triangle of characters- Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams). She is very much the brains behind Lancaster or at least the heart. She appears sweet for most of the film, but then when she is in private with her husband at a bathroom sink, we see how her innocent demeanor is a charade for actually being the most acute and observant character in the piece.
The performances behind the characters are on par with their on-page characterizations. Phoenix is refreshing to see again as he brings Freddie's anxiety and inner-most feelings to the forefront of the screen as he did as Commodus in Gladiator or Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Adams is able to convey a sweetness that can be turned devilish at a moment's notice. Hoffman continues the tradition of energetic and manipulative PTA prophets alongside Tom Cruise from Magnolia and Paul Dano from There Will Be Blood. Then of course there is the film on a purely technical level. Johnny Greenwood's (of Radiohead fame) monotone score sets up a rhythmic pattern that keeps the film moving along. Anderson and Greenwood know when to use the film's themes and when to let silence settle in. Then there is Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s (Youth Without Youth) cinematography. It's absolutely gorgeous and works perfectly with how PTA has evolved from the hectic but entrancing camera movement of Boogie Nights and Magnolia to the more composition-focused imagery from There Will Be Blood. Just look at the shopping mall fight and motorcycle scenes; the film looks like a fever dream.
A dream is perhaps the best way to explain how The Master just washes over you. The standalone moments will be remembered the most such as the questioning and experiments or Hoffman's speeches and musical numbers. Then the thoughts about the experience and what the film is saying to you personally will begin to settle in. Is the film about a father and a son? A student and a teacher? Is it really focused on societal truths about America that are still relevant today? All of the above? Whatever you find in the movie is up to you and with Magnolia being the shining example, I feel that PTA is the master (no pun intended) of ambiguity. He'll show you a lot, but leave any further communication up to the individual of which The Master is so inquisitively focused on.