The Will of One Man

23 Sep

Paul Thomas Anderson is a master filmmaker.

There’s just no other way to say it without making that lame, obvious pun.

His latest work, The Master, follows in the tradition of There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, and Boogie Nights as another ambitious, sprawling film that simultaneously feels epic and intimate, and wholly original.

It’s a captivating film that will establish Anderson as the best American filmmaker working today, and will likely win him all the awards that eluded him four years ago (how Blood lost the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars to No Country for Old Men, I still don’t know).

Simply stated, The Master is the best film I’ve seen so far this year (beating out The Dark Knight Rises by a smidge).

Is that enough hyperbole right off the top? Yeah, I think so too. So let’s move on.

Scientology … or not

The Master tells the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran who’s lost in the world. When we first meet him, at the end of the war, he’s so sick in the head and desperate for human connection that he dry-humps a giant woman-shaped sand “castle” on the beach, right in front of his fellow sailors.

After the war, Freddie goes from town to town, and job to job, never finding his place, until one night when he happens upon a docked ship carrying Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his family. It doesn’t take long for Dodd to see something rough in Freddie, an animal instinct that needs to be tamed. Using unconventional methods, Dodd works with Freddie to bring him down, show him his “true” self, and convert him to the Cause.

What is the Cause? Call it a cult if you will, but it’s a movement, based in some sketchy science, that uses pseudo-psychological and borderline hypnotic means to help people identify traumatic experiences from their past — perhaps as far back as trillions of years — and clear their souls of torment.

Wait a second. That sounds kind of like Scientology. True, but this is not a movie about Scientology (and Hoffman is not playing a variation on L. Ron Hubbard, either). Or is it?

Dodd sees in Freddie not just a soul in need of healing, but a protector and partner. A right-hand man who will do Dodd’s dirty work, when needed. He just needs to get Freddie’s emotions under control.

Are you watching, Oscar?

Told in operatic style, in movements, scored beautifully by Jonny Greenwood (whose Blood score was similarly awesome), and shot with painterly precision by Mihai Malaimare Jr., The Master delves deep into the minds of its characters, and forces the audience to succumb to its mysteries.

Not that you’ll be able to resist. For one thing, Hoffman is mesmerizing as Dodd. He’s charismatic in public, and quietly intense in one-on-one situations, but never without confidence in what he’s saying. Whereas Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview character in Blood was physically menacing, much of Dodd’s intimidation comes from a more cerebral place. There’s a lot going on behind those eyes, much that Dodd can’t reveal, and Hoffman just nails it. He makes you believe.

Hoffman is matched by Phoenix, who plays Freddie as a loose canon whose emotions are never fully in check. He wants to fit in, but his issues are so deep-rooted that he can’t ever fully invest in the Cause. Phoenix wears Freddie’s raw, bruised heart right on his sleeve, speaks volumes without saying a word, and is never more alive than when he begins to question Dodd’s teachings (“He’s making all this up as he goes along,” Dodd’s son Val, played by Jesse Plemons, tells Freddie). It’s a tour-de-force performance that you won’t soon forget. Let’s hope Oscar voters feel the same — about both of these actors.

Powerless characters

Anderson’s not out to expose Scientology, or illustrate the power of cults, as much as he’s following familiar themes: that of the interdependence of man, and our difficulty to find greater purpose in life because of challenges from those who empower us and hold us back.

In nearly all of Anderson’s films, characters have been powerless in the face of controlling men who try to thwart further growth. Think about it: In Blood, Eli Sunday and Daniel Plainview had an inextricable bond, and the preacher was never able to break through to the oilman, despite repeated attempts. In Boogie Nights, Dirk Diggler was given a life and a career by Jack Horner, but Dirk lost his way when he tried to go on his own. In Magnolia, Frank “T.J.” Mackey grew into a motivational speaker, but he still bared the emotional scars inflicted by his father. And so on.

The Master raises the stakes and twists Anderson’s own theme by making Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams, turning her sunshine image on its head), a central figure. She lurks in the background, menacingly, and with few words causes the viewer to wonder, Who is the real master here? Is it Dodd, or is Peggy the one pulling the strings behind the scenes? Anderson isn’t saying; that’s for you to watch and decide.

We are true believers

The Master is a movie full of questions, one that may require multiple viewings to fully understand, but one thing isn’t in doubt: How good it is. Whether he’s telling the story in sustained wide shots or tight close-ups, in the moments of subtle machination and those of more overt action, Anderson commands our attention and brings us along on a journey of faith and belief.

It’s utterly fascinating to watch as Freddie falls under the spell of Dodd, and wrestles with his own sense of belonging. Where will he end up? Where will we end up? The Master doesn’t have all the answers. It just makes us all believers in the cult of Paul Thomas Anderson.

I’m giving this film an A.

What questions do you have after seeing The Master? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

5 Responses to “The Will of One Man”


  1. What I’m Thankful For This Year « Martin's Musings - November 21, 2012

    […] Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher […]

  2. 2012 Was a Masterful Year for the Movies « Martin's Musings - December 21, 2012

    […] The Master It was a very close call this year, but in the end, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film takes the top […]

  3. Argo Get Yourself Some Oscars | Martin's Musings - February 22, 2013

    […] win: Argo Should win: Zero Dark Thirty Should have been nominated: The Master Argo has this one sewn up after big wins at the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards, among […]

  4. In a Meh Year for Movies, These Releases Won the Battle | Martin's Musings - January 17, 2018

    […] latest collabo is all about a power struggle — one of Anderson’s favorite themes (see also: The Master). Here, Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a fussy fashion designer in a bit of a creative funk, […]

  5. Wrapping Up a Decade at the Movies with 20 Favorite Films | Martin's Musings - December 10, 2019

    […] call which Paul Thomas Anderson film to include on this list; I could just as easily have included The Master — and almost did. Alas. This film, Daniel Day-Lewis’ last (he has apparently retired from […]

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