Paul Thomas Anderson is emerging as one of the best filmmakers of our time. He certainly strives to create art. And like any artist not every work will be a success. Roger Ebert once said of Werner Herzog, “even his failures are spectacular.” The same can be said of Anderson; as both writer and director his latest film, The Master, is certainly a spectacular failure.
Anywhere the Wind Blows
This is not to say it isn’t worth watching. The problem with the film is that Freddie Quell, played by a perfectly hollowed Joaquin Phoenix, is the central character.
All you need to know about Freddie Quell is that he drinks paint thinner.
Not straight mind you. He does mix it. But he drinks it nonetheless.
At one point in the film he confides that you just have to know “how” to drink it.
Now there have certainly been excellent films with alcoholics as the central character. With Nail and Iand Leaving Las Vegas come to mind. But they have to have some personality. Wood alcohol has stripped Freddie of any. He’s just a storm waiting for someone to stumble across his path.
In Freddie’s path are Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Peggy Dodd, played by Amy Adams. They are husband and wife. He is a bestselling author and charismatic leader of a budding cult called the Cause with a herd of followers to tend to. She is all smiles at his side when they are on stage and the fierce protector of their small empire behind the scenes.
Lancaster is looking for a reason to test his metal and perhaps destroy himself. He finds it in the hooch that Freddie concocts. He is also drawn to Freddie and takes him on as a pet project saying at one point, “If we are not helping him, then it is we who have failed him.”
Peggy Dodd’s counterpoint in the same scene is, “He will be our undoing if we continue to have him here.” She says this not because of any machinations of Freddie’s part but because she recognizes the self-destructive attraction her husband has to Freddie.
If that conflict, between the Dodd’s, had been the focus of the film it would have been another masterpiece likeThere Will Be Blood. Instead we are treated the extended travelogues of Freddie Quell paint thinner drinker extraordinaire.
You can ask yourself as a viewer, “Will Freddie drink too much?”, or “Will Freddie try to have sex with every woman in the room?”, or “Will Freddie find a reason to pick a fight with someone, anyone?” The answer to all of those questions is yes. There is no surprise in Freddie Quell. It is always yes.
That may make for a truthful character but it makes for a listless film. By setting the film with Freddie at its helmThe Master misses the opportunity to tell a far more interesting tale.
Lost with Freddie and Other Useless Characters
Like Lancaster, Paul Thomas Anderson is equally overly fascinated with Freddie. He tells a back story of the character that takes a half-hour prior to the real story kicking in to gear. Most of it could have been told via flashback during the extensive question and answer sessions, known as “processing” that Lancaster puts Freddie through. The whole opening could have been cut to five minutes.
The processing is the highlight of the film and the first session Lancaster puts Freddie through is mesmerizing. The subsequent sessions are not. Especially those in the latter half of the film, where Dodd’s whole entourage turns their focus on helping Freddie. Those sessions are meant to seem endless, semi-cruel, and futile. They are all of those things indeed. Freddie often asks in those scenes, “How is this helping?”
The answer is the extended process isn’t helping him or the film.
There is much that needs trimming. Whole characters could be cut. Dodd’s son Val is there to only deliver one line, “He’s making this whole thing up as he goes along. You don’t see that?”
The same line could have been delivered by Dodd’s married daughter Elizabeth, whose only purpose seems to be to stir sexual tension in Freddie. The thing is Freddie doesn’t need someone to stir sexual tension in him. He is both sexual and tense all the time.
Elizabeth’s actions as a temptress could have served another, more sitcom like purpose, by giving Freddie the opportunity to confront her. He could have told everyone the truth about her flirtations and been ironically not believed the one time he told the truth. Anderson neatly avoids this sitcom like scenario but the results are only empty screen time.
Phoenix, Hoffman, and Especially Adams Deliver
Still looking for a reason to see it? Then see it for the three main leads.
Joaquin Phoenix allows Anderson to pose him like a sunken chested, twisted limbed mannequin. He constantly contorts the character of Freddie Quell as if Freddie was some sort of vine seeking a lattice to latch on to for support. Any lattice.
Phoenix’s best moments come during a prison cell confrontation with his shoulder blades are sharply arched and spiked like an emaciated Quasimodo and in silent stormy revelations at just what Lancaster Dodd is selling.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is cursed with being too good of an actor. He brings high expectations to every role. He doesn’t slack here, using his the timbers of his voice to both charm and confront. Every scene where Lancaster Dodd has to defend the Cause against those who dare question him, simply simmer.
The biggest revelation here is Amy Adams who easily holds her own against both Hoffman and Phoenix. Friendly and doting when there is an audience present she is a lioness in private. Peggy Dodd sees both her husband and Freddie for the charlatans that they are. There is a great scene where she slaps Freddie awake to tell him he must quit drinking or leave.
It’s the movie’s biggest failing that she is given so few lines.
That sentiment about the lack of Amy Adams’ screen time, could be even more generalized. The Master held about 30 minutes of great scenes for me. In a film that is two hours and seventeen minutes long those scenes were too few and too far between.
Cinematography is a highlight in Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. This was shot in 65mm film. Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet was the last film to be widely distributed in that format. Both feel equally long. The visuals in Branagh’s film hold up regardless of what format you see it in. I saw The Master at a digital theater. The benefits of the 65mm process did not hold up. Unless you get to see it at a theater that will display it in a non-digital format seeing it on the big screen is not a must.
It should also be noted that this is a very sexual film. There is one scene that may ruin the new Muppets forever for you.