Paul Thomas Anderson deals in conflict. More specifically, he deals in character-driven conflict. He thrives on it.
This conflict manifests itself in two ways: between characters, frequently as the result of a struggle for some form of power or dominance, and within an individual character, the product of any number of deep-seated issues. The external and the internal aren't always mutually exclusive.
Think of his previous work: in Boogie Nights, the lead battled temptation and excess resulting in a downward spiral stemming from a desire for fame. In Punch-Drunk Love, we were shown a man so crippled by isolation, loneliness, and inferiority that daily life was a struggle. Regret, exploitation, the cost of failed family relationships and a host of other issues were intensely present in nearly every character in Magnolia, while There Will Be Blood depicted one of the most agonizing and bizarre interpersonal struggles for power in a world of greed and religion that I have ever seen.
If you figured, like I did, that Anderson's characters couldn't possibly get any more damaged or broken, you'll be taken aback by Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell in The Master. Quell is a cryptic and fascinating character, providing no easy answers as to why he behaves the way he does or for how long he has been this way. A chemically dependent, sexual deviant, Quell's instability is likely the result of a significant combination of factors, including genetics, a tortured childhood, and a damaged psyche from extensive military service in WWII.
Phoenix's performance defines volatility. Mumbling through distorted facial expressions and an exaggerated posture, his physical outbursts are as disturbing as his inner turmoil. He's as dangerous a mix as his own personal moonshine concoctions.
So what is Quell's place in The Master? After some time in the Navy, and a series of failed attempts to rejoin the working class, Quell wanders onto a boat in the San Francisco harbor that appears to be hosting a lavish party. After what we are told was a typical night of boozing that resulted in a blackout, Quell is introduced to Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), seldom called by his real name and more frequently called "Master" by those close to him. Dodd is as enigmatic as Quell, describing himself as a writer, doctor and nuclear physicist among other things. It turns out that Dodd heads something known as "The Cause."
What The Cause "is" exactly is purposely shrouded, but it consists of a group of people devout in their following of Dodd and his methods. Simplified past the point of doing it justice, Dodd believes a person's spirit exists basically in perpetuity, passing from "vehicle" to "vehicle" as is necessary. Through a series of questions known as "processing," Dodd identifies trauma in a person's past, and attempts to basically transport their minds back to that point in time as a way to reconcile.
Dodd quickly establishes a complicated bond with Quell, claiming the stowaway can stay as long as he continues producing his homemade liquor. It's clear however that in Quell, Dodd sees not another pushover member of The Cause desperately seeking guidance, but rather a challenge unlike any he has seen before.
It's well known at this point that Anderson used the beginnings of Scientology as a blueprint for the film, and while I don't have enough knowledge to determine how strong the parallel is, there are definite similarities between The Cause and Scientology that will undoubtedly upset some (the "processing" aspect being an obvious one). There are accusations of cult and accusations that Dodd is in fact making up the rules as he goes along. Even Quell, at times, displays serious skepticism, though he is quick to defend Dodd to others.
The relationship between Dodd and Quell is one of unsettling codependence. Dodd calls Quell things like scoundrel, soldier and "naughty boy," making it difficult to determine whether he views Quell as a patient, apprentice, child (Quell's behavior at times definitely suggests this), henchman or some odd combination of these things. While Dodd puts forth a facade of all out confidence and belief, he is petrified of challenge, and needs Quell to validate his methods. If there can be standout moments in a near perfect film, it would be those in which Phoenix and Hoffman go toe-to-toe.
Aside from the two leads, there is an increasingly strange, yet outstanding, performance from Amy Adams as Dodd's faithful wife. There is much more to her character than initially meets the eye, but I'll stop there as the turn her character takes is a bit shocking.
Working for the first time with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., Anderson hasn't lost anything in terms of visual style. Perhaps most in line with There Will Be Blood, The Master is very PTA, yet unique at the same time. Shot and presented in a few locations in 70MM, the movie looks terrific. Wide, steady shots are mixed with intimate close-ups of characters in many of the more intense sequences, and some abrupt transitions and cuts can keep you off balance.
The unconventional but fitting score, once again created by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, relies heavily on wooden percussion not unlike his work for There Will Be Blood, and frequently adds to an already unbearable character-driven tension. It's perfect.
There is no question that The Master is a challenging film. This is the type of film that will be loved by many, but probably won't connect with the average movie goer. When you require focus and interpretation, you run the risk of alienating the mainstream. It's unfortunate, but it's true. I'm already dying to revisit this. The Master is the best film of the year thus far by a wide margin. It makes almost everything else seem ordinary in comparison.