The Master

The Master

The Master is a rare film, so luminous and charged it seems to be shedding electricity for most of its duration.

It achieves this incredible energy via the interplay of three fearsome talents: director Paul Thomas Anderson, star Joaquin Phoenix, and cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare, Jr. Watching the film for a second time, I got the impression of a perfect, unguarded unison between these three creative forces. It's so inspired and so lucid that when they stray even a little outside of that heightened harmony, all the magic of it seems to go dark. For me this happens mostly in the last act, the portion of the film that shows Freddie Quell (Phoenix) attempting to rehabilitate himself back into society. But maybe this is exactly appropriate, since it's at this point that Freddie is emancipating himself from the orbit of apparent cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Anderson's achievement here is that he's made a film that feels powerfully instinctive. The dynamic between Dodd and Quell or any other characters is never put into dialogue or given expository scenes. Quell is a fractured hunk of rock in space, struggling to form himself into a planetoid; Dodd is a nebulous planet with a strong gravity that nonetheless only seems to change the shape of Quell's warped psyche, rather than ameliorate it. The film is focused entirely on the sensory details, visual awe and psychic energy of these orbital interactions. With director, actor and cinematographer throwing so much synchronized power into communicating Quell's sun-bleached, sex-addled, self-destructive brokenness, the interplay between these two bodies in space is bound to exert a massive push and pull on the viewer. The Master is at its strongest when we are in Freddie's desperate shoes, wanting so badly for him to feel relief from himself that we'll even try believing that some of Dodd's methods could work.

Both times I've seen the film, I've found myself a little stymied by the motorcycle sequence, as it's such a sudden shift for Quell's character. Up to this point he is thoroughly Dodd's guy, but then he unexpectedly bolts at full speed in the other direction. It was confusing to me because up until that point, we're able to see the wounded animal in Freddie that animates all of his decisions. This is the first point in the film at which Freddie becomes an enigma, and the electricity generated by the film seems to die down. At first I thought of this as a misstep on the director's part, but the more I consider it, the more I wonder if it's Freddie's first step into a world where his feelings aren't tossing him around like a rag doll. If the manic intensity and sun-bleached visuals are meant to represent Freddie's internal state, then this shift towards more subdued scenes and visuals feels meaningful. Freddie may start to drift back towards his old coping mechanisms of sex and alcohol, but something in him has tangibly changed. He's tired of fighting. And in that tiredness, some tenderness emerges. Is this the result of the love shown to him by his master, Lancaster Dodd? I am always finding new things to tease out of the contours of this film.

It's possible to read The Master as an argument for cinema itself. The narrative is fairly simple on paper, and other mediums can give us knowledge about the emotional condition of men like Freddie Quell. But Anderson, Phoenix and Mălaimare work together to build a vivid, dimensional, humane model of a man's inner world shaping his outer life. As Ebert said, films have this special property of generating empathy. My heartbroken empathy for Freddie Quell is as real as anything else in my life. He is more than a character, he is an electric current, and I can feel him in my bones.

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