I should’ve known I wasn’t going to like The Master. I cannot say I have loved all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work, including There Will Be Blood. Daniel Day-Lewis was excellent at yet another incredibly unlikable, unhinged character.
On the topic of unhinged and unlikable, enter The Master. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a troubled, destructive man dealing with the aftermath of returning after fighting in WWII. Quell is also fighting against his own personal demons. He is self-prescribing by drinking horrific alcoholic concoctions (paint-thinner in one). All in all he’s in a bad place when he comes across Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), aka the “Master” of, let’s call it what it is, a cult.
It becomes hard to know what is real and what is not as Freddie imagines things that have not happened. As there is no character evolution it is painful to watch Freddie and Dodd’s destructive behavior. There is no one to root for.
Sure, there are complex questions about man and sexuality, and man versus animal. Quell and Dodd seem to be two halves of a whole as Dodd recognizes in Quell. It’s easy to wonder, is man truly that base? It is interesting that Dodd claims that humans are not part of the animal kingdom yet he insists on there being a leader of men (in this case himself as the Master).
The performances are excellent and may even be recognized come awards season. There was a definite void when Joaquin Phoenix was pretending he would never act again. His intensity is finely matched by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams (who plays in my opinion the real Master here, Dodd’s quietly domineering wife). Hoffman has mastered, no pun intended, this type of slick character who is not what he seems (expertly done in Doubt and even The Ides of March). Adams is a fierce force onscreen. Her sweet, doe-eyed look is a stark contrast to the strength and steel she brings to her characters.
I couldn’t help but want The Master to end. After it all was done I couldn’t believe that was what we were left with, no redemption just a bunch of questions, confusion, and a headache.