It is not a film about Scientology, something I was a little disappointed about at first. While the film certainly discusses the politics and structure of the cult of personality, the film is more about a man deep in a crisis. “The Master” is probably one of the most honest depictions of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on-screen. We never see Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell in combat but are clear it left a deep affect on him. He has a dysfunctional obsession with sex, is prone to anti-social behavior, and is deeply alcoholic. For about the first forty minutes of the film, Freddie is so constantly sloshed you can barely understand the garbled words that come out of his mouth. He looses his job as a photographer in a department store after antagonizing a customer, in one of the film’s oddest, funniest moments. His life is in shambles and he wanders from location to location, in a constant state of drunkenness. (To give you an idea of how intense his alcoholism is one of his favorite mixed drinks involves paint thinner.) He doesn’t find any sort of focus until stumbling onto the yacht of Lancaster Dodd, an author and budding cult leader. In the film’s first really fantastic moment, Freddie undergoes Dodd’s Processing procedure, a series of piercing, psychological question, frequently repeated, breaking down the target’s resistance. Dodd doesn’t flinch when Freddie casually admits to committing incest. Soon, as the questioning goes deeper, Freddie’s voice clears up for the first time in the entire film. For the first time, he seems focused and concentrating. Anderson’s camera never pulls away, focusing on the pained, concentrated face of Phoenix. It’s a brilliant moment. When the film calmly transfers to a flashback of Phoenix meeting the love of his life, it plays out so smoothly, like a beautiful piece of music.
The movie ends on an ambiguous note. Honestly, the film could have ramble on pleasantly for a little while more. It is a snapshot of a man’s life, tracking the period where he was involved with a strange cult, going nowhere before or after. That’s what I think anyway.
The film is edited and paced so gracefully. I’ve found this to be Anderson’s greatest strength. You never feel the run time of his films, even though they frequently amble over two hours in length. “The Master” looks quite beautiful and it’s no shock that the film was shot for 70 millimeter. It has a rich, deep scope and I can’t wait to watch the film on Blu-Ray. The camera often watches patiently, in long takes, as the character’s talk or discuss. By no means is his camera stationary, as he also employs several long tracking shots. Jonny Greenwood’s musical score is sparse and experimental, a powerful mood piece that is still oddly listenable. The lack of nominations for the film in the cinematography or score category is major oversights on the Academy’s part. (Not to mention the lack of director or best picture nominations. Is it too late to wonder about a Scientology conspiracy?)
So “The Masters” is a masterpiece. It’s a tightly wound film of pouring emotional and mental dysfunction, beautifully illustrated by an artist in his prime. P.T. Anderson, just let us know when you’re going to make a movie that isn’t goddamn brilliant. [9/10]