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The Master: A Masterclass of Acting

Regardless of what your thoughts are or what your reactions might be towards Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 “Scientology” drama The Master; you can’t help but be stunned at the sheer power of the performances from the two main actors in the film. The late great Philip Seymour Hoffman and the forever enigmatic Joaquin Phoenix. As described by a critic from the Times of India:

This film is almost like a vehicle for Phoenix and Hoffman’s acting skills because both their performances are very engaging.

And as Kofi Outlaw from Screen Rant mentions in his review:

The Master may seem like a movie of more questions and suggestions than answers and clarity, but the sheer beauty of its composition and the intensity of its central performances are enough.

Certainly it seems a recurring comment throughout numerous critic’s review of the film that it’s central performances are what hold everything together. Indeed, the narrative is somewhat difficult to fully comprehend as not much seems to happen in terms of plot or character development, but Anderson’s focus is not having a major reveal, plot twist or character redemption. He is interested in exploring the complexities of human nature and the way we interact with one and another.

He is also allowing two great actors to show off their talent, and he allows them to develop their characters and make them their own. It is this freedom which allows both Phoenix and Hoffman to leave a lasting impression which is far more memorable than many of the other aspects of the film.

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Phoenix presents us with a complicated, conflicted and confused individual who is constantly just drifting through life. Phoenix convey’s so much emotional distress and inner turmoil through the use of his eyes, and vacant, lost stare. When Anderson first introduces us to the character, he is in a boat, his bottom half of his face hidden so we can’t see whether he is smiling or giving a sneer, instead all we can focus on his eyes. Phoenix slowly blinks, and his eyelids are heavy. It appears that he’s is struggling to stay awake, despite being in a war zone situation, perhaps Phoenix and Anderson are trying to suggest that Freddie is try escape from his life via the use of sleep and dreams.

Phoenix presents the character of Freddie of having almost animalistic behaviour, he is uncivilised and unaware of social norms; this is shown by how he dry humps the sand woman, and masterbates openly in public. Even though we are only in a few minutes into the film, we know that this is a disturbed individual who has suffered from some sort of trauma. As Freddie lies down in the sand, next to the crude woman he has crafted out of sand, we see the longing in his eyes for comfort and human contact. This is clearly a man who only wants one thing in life, to be loved and not to be alone.

Freddie is a character who is restless, we can see this from how he is unable to sit still for long periods of time and as a result his leg starts to shake. He is constantly looking around his surroundings, perhaps sussing out the quickest route out. By presenting Freddie as this nervous, anxious and paranoid individual without revealing too much through backstory and expositional dialogue, we know that this character is wary of authority and is compelled to be violent towards them.  As Richard Brody from the New Yorker discusses:

[Phoenix]  is an actor of furious natural emotion, of inner violence with which his very being trembles as he struggles to keep it in check and to channel it.

The character of Freddie represents chaos whereas Dodd represents order, a recurring theme throughout Anderson’s work.

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A good example of how authority leads Freddie to have outbursts of rage and anger, is in the scene where he provokes as customer who wants a portrait, Freddie deliberately acts like a mechavious child winding the man up to the point where the man snaps and they start to fight. Freddie doesn’t respect other, especially males who are older than him. His behaviour leading up to this point reflects his immaturity, by the way he slowly walks over to the man, deadpan in a way that remincises Buster Keaton, again we can see what he’s really feeling, as there’s an indication of menace in his eyes.

The viewer has a hard time reading Phoenix’s body language at first and an even harder time knowing his character’s motives, but this is because the film require multiple rewatchings, and that’s why many find the film to be such a turn off. Certainly the character of Freddie is quite unlikeable, but Anderson and Phoenix aren’t interested in making Freddie likeable, they want to make a character who is damaged beyond repair.

Hoffman’s performance as Lancaster Dodd, the man behind the mysterious movement known as The Cause, seems to be at first the calm rational man that Freddy should aspire to be like. There is a sense of the genius and a sense of superiority of intelligence in the character of Dodd, who exerts his presence in every room and dominates the scene. He has to be the centre of attention, which reflects his immaturity but unlike Freddie who acts out in eccentric behaviour, Dodd prefers to use dialogue and intelligence to get the attention that he demands. As Brody describes:

Hoffman brilliantly and astonishingly plays Dodd as Charles Foster Kane; his channelling of Orson Welles’s performance is as eerie as it is exhilarating.

Indeed we can see elements of Kane, in Dodd by the way he delivers his speeches and dominates the space, he demands our undivided focus and attention. However, there is an unpredictable side to Dodd who can be prone to spontaneous bursts of anger, especially when an outsider is questioning The Cause, and this indicates that he is a fraud in a very effective way, because we see in the smallest outburst and use of vulgar language that he is unable to fully relieving himself of doubt, rage and criticism.

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Perhaps the most powerful scene and the best example of how these two actors dominate the screen, and show off their acting abilities, is the processing scene. At first Freddie doesn’t take the questioning very seriously. Phoenix’s behaviour is laid back, casual but there’s an underlying sense of nervousness shown by his twitching and laughing. Hoffman’s Dodd remains controlled and reserved, although he continues to smile to show Freddie that he is not a threat. As the questioning unfolds Freddie seems to crack, his outbursts of laughter become more erratic, while Dodd remains in control of his emotions. Again this reflects Anderson’s obsession with chaos versus control. The scene is shot quite simply as a two shot, mid-shot with the mise-en-scene being relatively simple, in fact for the majority of the scene we just see a black background surround the characters.

It is the power and the intensity of the acting which keeps us engaged with the film. We can see the true friendship, respect and connection that these two characters have in this one scene. J Hoberman from The Guardian described the film as “an acting battle” but it’s more than that, it is a celebration of acting, and it’s an education into the world of method acting. Simply put, The Master is a masterclass in acting.

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