The Master is the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson, critically-beloved auteur of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood, a roman á clef about Scientology starring Joaquin Phoenix as a drifter named Freddy Quell that’s sure to be debated for years to come. For instance, is Quell more of a gas-huffing pussy lover or a pussy-loving gas huffer? It’s a rift that will tear apart families, pit brother against brother.
The Master is polarizing, because like Drive, it’s largely an atmospheric movie. There’s no real political or religious message that you’re supposed to take away from it, and it’s not a thrilling tale of plot-driven intrigue – you mean Xenu was really dead the whole time? Whoooaaaaoooaaa. There’s no scene where Phoenix’s character accidentally kills a townie and Philip Seymour Hoffman plugs him in the back of the head on a riverbank while telling him stories about all the tits and pussies on the planet Kolob – red ones and blue ones and green ones! – as an angry mob approaches. A writing teacher once told me that the heart of every story is people and place, and that’s what The Master is. It’s nothing so much as a meditative, rotating series of historical portraits – who are these people and what do they do? – mostly straightforward and matter of fact, without the fart-sniffing pop-psychology you get with most indie films. It’s more concerned with enjoying who Joaquin’s character is than trying to figure out what’s his problem. It’s beautiful to look at, and Joaquin’s snarl-lipped, sex-obsessed simpleton is endlessly entertaining. When I’m enjoying what I’m watching this much, BUT WHAT’S THE ARTIST TRYING TO SAY!??! never much enters the equation.
It’s bizarre to hear critics describe The Master as “somber,” when it’s arguably PTA’s funniest movie. Joaquin gets a lot of mileage out of that hump-backed, hands-on-hips, arms-cocked-forward, aw-shucks move Tom Hanks used to do in Forrest Gump (partly because Phoenix has an intriguingly terrible body). And in their first auditing session, Seymour Hoffman looks deep into Joaquin’s eyes, asking him “Are you unpredictable?” To which Joaquin responds with an equally somber pregnant pause before cutting a loud fart. Talk about a movie after my own heart. I knew it’d be pretty, but fart jokes?? *SWOON*
Freddie Quell is a directionless war veteran drunkenly drifting through life – he goes from sailor to Sears portrait photographer to cabbage picker, all while getting butthoused, nailing chicks and dreaming about poontang – until he crashes Philip Seymour Hoffman’s boat party one night and becomes the object of his fascination. Quell stays on the boat, which is going from California to New York “through the canal.” Quell just sort of drifts around without a plan, going along for whatever ride for as long as it makes him happy, and Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd is charmed by his blunt wit and almost total lack of guilt, shame, or reflection. Quell’s appeal to Dodd is the same as it is for us, and PTA moves us through the story the same way Quell moves through life, the romance of the wanderer. At one point, Joaquin wanders into a room on the ship where headphone-wearing women are hurriedly transcribing Dodd’s latest lecture. Joaquin quietly puts on a pair of headphones, grabs a pencil, and appears to join them in transcribing, before he holds up his paper to a transcription girl, and it says “DO YOU WANT TO F*CK?” :-)
The comedic timing is impeccable.
There are some hints at the dark side of Scientology, but the film isn’t about that, it’s more about the appeal of cults, a love story between these two dudes, both desperate to believe that life is connected. And who doesn’t want to watch a love story between two dudes? What are you, some kind of a homo? It’s about people trying to connect with each other. There’s one scene at the very end that borders on the silly, with Phil Seemo cooing J-Walks a lullaby while he cries, where they’re practically having a method actor pissing contest. But the general sense of whimsy that PTA has built saves it from turning into self-parody – it’s okay to think it’s all a bit silly, because it’s not self-serious.
Whether it’s an incredible rack focus tracking shot of Phoenix walking along the waterfront or one of the many naked sequences focused on incredible racks, it’s the most beautiful movie you’ll see in a long time. Whoa, are those long and medium shots?! Holy sh*t, I remember those! And in the era of dim 3D, The Master is so dazzlingly bright throughout that I could actually see the notes I was taking. The irony is that it was such a pleasant, enjoy-the-scenery and go-along-for-the-ride movie that I barely took any notes at all, and one of the few notes I did take was “gas-huffing pussy lover.”