Director Paul Thomas Anderson draws the audience in to a psychological and emotional maelstrom, while each performer gives a master class in acting.
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” is a disturbing experience in ways that matter. It shakes us up not by bolting us out of our seats with cheap frights, but by drawing us into a psychological and emotional maelstrom. It takes its own sweet time doing so. So many directors these days, especially American directors, don’t have the patience to develop a scene, a mood. It’s as if their film was simply a feature-length trailer for itself. To its credit, no one will ever accuse “The Master” of coming across that way.
In his first movie since 2007’s “There Will Be Blood,” Anderson focuses once again on the dynamics of mania and isolation and loneliness, embodied here by two men, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who has emerged shattered from World War II, and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic guru whose self-created philosophy "The Cause" attempts to restore its adherents to a primal state of “perfection.”
Freddie is a lost soul from the start, and it’s clear he was this way long before the war. Alcoholic, sex-obsessed, his face most often contorted into a grimace of fury and despair, Freddie, without realizing it, is looking for succor. He finds it when, on a March night in 1950, he stows away on a yacht commandeered by Dodd on its way to New York from San Francisco by way of the Panama Canal. Freddie’s homemade hooch recipe is what initially draws Dodd in, but what really intrigues "The Master," as he is called by his followers, is the prospect of recombining this broken man. Freddie is a test-case for The Cause, which is why, even when Dodd’s inner circle, including his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), wants to eject him, Dodd refuses to do so.