In his first feature since one of the most bizarre public meltdowns/method acting projects in recent memory, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, a naval veteran returning home from WWII with only shreds of traditional humanity still intact. Quell's body is twisted and gnarled into unpleasant shapes, his voice often indecipherable as he loses his own train of thought. He specializes in creating cocktails out of some truly disgusting household items, his animalistic sexual desires seem to dominate his every thought, and the threat of violence appears to be constantly simmering just below the surface. Freddie is a mess, one of the most deranged and sickening messes you'll ever see committed to the big screen, which is exactly why Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is so drawn to him.
The leader of an ever-growing community who calls themselves The Cause, and refers to Lancaster almost exclusively as Master, Dodd is a smooth-talking intellectual with some enough new-age ideas about birth, death, time, and the universe to fill a few books. Germane to these beliefs is the notion that humans are not animals, and that we all ought to, "return to our inherent state of perfect." So Quell needs guidance, and Dodd needs a project, but what on paper sounds like a match made in heaven turns out to be a far more unruly beast.
If that summary sounds a bit convoluted/strange/abstract for your liking, then I'd avoid driving within 15 miles of any theater showing The Master. The film is endlessly unpredictable, heading full-throttle in directions both deplorable and unforeseeable, all while reveling in its own vagueness, and deriving obvious pleasure from its ability to turn stomachs. Its mysteries have been rattling around ceaselessly in my head ever since I saw it, but unlike previous Anderson think-pieces, I don't necessarily feel like I'm getting any closer to the answers.
Perhaps that's the point, but this is an awfully draining movie experience to end with a big fat question mark, which is undoubtably where the Magnolia director drops us off. The Auteur's films have almost always ended with momentous, concrete occurrences (lengthy prosthetics, jaw-dropping meteorology, "I'm finished!"). The Master, by contrast, seems to float away like mist, daring audiences to find a meaning all their own. Much like Dodd's preachings themselves, the flick feels either deep, intertwined, and complex enough to support multiple features, or too devoid of actual meaning to even be worthy of one. I have yet to make up my mind on the matter, and will likely need a second (and possibly third) go-around, but no middle ground on the matter really feels possible.
What will not require multiple viewings, on the other hand, is admiring the craft on display here. Working for the first time without trusty cinematographer Robert Elswit, Anderson turns to Mihai Malaimare Jr., who captures to the whole thing with the hypnotic beauty of a fever dream. Blood maestro Johnny Greenwood is back to turn the screws with reckless abandon, applying pitiless levels of foreboding and dread through-out, especially in the marvelously composed opening moments, among the film's best.
But all the talk is about Phoenix and Hoffman, and why not? Hoffman wears snakeskin like he owns it, calculating his words and thoughts down to the most minute of details, all the better to maintain power over his followers. Besides the obvious L. Ron Hubbard citation on display here, Hoffman also seems to be sneaking pages out of the Orson Wells/Lawrence Olivier school of glorious over-acting, which makes him a perfect foil for Phoenix's feral channeling of Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. These are big names to throw at any recently-delivered performance, but lovers of film history will find them largely unavoidable, especially in the case of Phoenix. His work here is so enormous, so volcanic, that it just about takes over the movie, and could easily be called hammy if it weren't so searing, so impossible to look away from.
And I guess that's where I'll stop my review, dropping you off in the middle of a thought as if a complete sentence would suffice, much like the movie itself. I know what I love about The Master, but I'm still working through its distanced, tangled whole. I'll let you know when I figure it out, but those who call themselves fans of well-crafted, important film-making ought to see it for themselves in the meantime. The Master isn't about to tell you what to believe, so why should I?