In my opinion, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest three films feel like they are a part of an unofficial experimental trilogy. They each have a less coherent storyline and feel like labyrinthian mazes that dare you to enter and decipher their meanings. The first film in that trilogy is the 2012 masterpiece (no pun intended) known as The Master.
The Master does have a plot involving a former WWII soldier named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who suffers from PTSD and joins a movement called “The Cause” led by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams). Yet, the film’s primary focus is on its ambiguous atmosphere. Part of the ambiguity is perfectly captured by the main trio of actors.
Joaquin Phoenix, who is always impressive, delivers the best performance of his career as Freddie. A traumatized man who tries drinking his sorrows away and is someone that can lash out at you at literally any moment. Meanwhile, the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman is aces as Lancaster who is like the calm ice to Freddie’s fire.
One scene that perfectly captures their dynamic is when Lancaster puts Freddie through a technique called “processing” where he asks Freddie a series of questions regarding his past. As Lancaster is questioning him, he is calm and collected but as the camera keeps focusing on Freddie, Freddie is showcasing his insecurities and regret through his intense facial reactions as he is trying hard not to blink. What went so wrong in Freddie’s life? Why would Lancaster be so drawn to such a tortured soul? Is it because he sees Freddie as a perfect pawn in his chess piece? Because he’s someone that feels empty and has nothing to live for?
Also, is Lancaster even the titular master? He may be the leader of his cult but his wife may indicate otherwise. Despite being in the background most of the movie, Amy Adams is a captivating presence as the sinister Peggy Dodd. Even though Adams has proven that she can play any type from role, going from playing a Disney princess in Enchanted to the very neurotic Amy in Her to the seductive con artist Sydney Prosser in American Hustle.
Peggy is unlike anything we’ve seen her do. Whether she gives a death stare or gives her husband a handjob, Peggy is someone that is uncompromising when trying to achieve her plans. The film may be about the duality between Lancaster and Freddie yet I’m more curious as to what makes Peggy tick. What drove her to be so evil? Just why exactly is everyone around her a means to an end?
All three actors rightfully earned Oscar nominations for their performances. But one of the most frustrating oversights from that Oscar season is the lack of a Best Cinematography nomination for Mihai Malaimare, Jr.. The way he shoots the film is as if it’s a literal dream with its omnipresent white lighting. Even the darkest moments, like the aforementioned “Processing” scene, have tints of bright light to make the film’s atmosphere appear less ominous than it actually is.
The Master is about what’s mostly on the surface with an uncertainty over what lies beneath. We don’t know what makes Peggy tick. As Lancaster snaps at anyone who attempts to prod him over the beliefs he’s trying to sell, we don’t know whether he’s in denial or truly believes what he’s selling. Plenty of questions that go unanswered yet it is up to the viewer to figure out the answers. This means that The Master won’t be for everyone, but anyone who chooses to try to piece together this puzzle will be in for an alluring, masterful nightmare.