What a judicious decision of Paul Thomas Anderson’s to give the audience so many closeups of Joaquin Phoenix’s face, especially when The Master goes to pieces in the last forty-five minutes. What contrasts: the dark thick eyebrows against the drawn, sallow skin, cheek muscles receded into crags, cartoonishly large eyeballs. Most impressive is a mouth that squeezes words out of its left side. When Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Stepford Wife Peggy (Amy Adams) take turns hectoring him in speeches we heard in the first half, Phoenix is the only thing to look at. He rewards the attention. Béla Tarr should shoot a nine-hour physiognomy as if Phoenix were Dreyer’s Falconetti: a more rewarding project than yet another PTA joint in which the director humiliates Hoffman for being fat or gay or something.
Because a filmmaker as rigorous as Anderson believes, like Clint Eastwood’s William Munny, that deserve’s got nuthin’ to do with it, The Master must transform into a monodrama as surely as There Will Be Blood and Punch Drunk Love did with Daniel Day-Lewis and Adam Sandler respectively. It’s also possible that Anderson has lost the ability to write other characters off whom the leads can set off sparks. We should probably be grateful — for about forty-five minutes The Master promises to be not just a study of a character in crisis as ruthless as Bergman and as conversant in the language of film as anything we’ve seen, but career-highs for Phoenix, Hoffman, and production designer Jack Fisk. With the possible exception of Soderbergh, no one in the generation of American directors born after 1970 gives a damn about history — specifically, man’s place in the times in which he lives — so the recreation of a New York brownstone party in 1950 gibes with one of Mary McCarthy’s memoirs. Beginning with partying sailors on an island who are about to hear the end of the war against Japan, The Master follows Freddy Quell (Phoenix) as he fails to adjust to normality: jobs as a photographer in a department store and picking cabbage alongside Japanese migrants don’t keep his alcoholism and self-contempt at bay. He does, however, excel at concocting moonshine out of photographic chemicals, four kinds of whiskey, and — my favorite — paint thinner, the excellence of which attracts Lancaster Dodd, referred to most often as The Master, who is officiating the wedding of his daughter on the ship bound for New York on which Freddy is a stowaway.
Whether the audience finds Dodd sinister depends on its taste for “self-empowerment” and other New Age bromides. Hoffman plays him as an ascetic who relishes let’s call it the bounties of earth: booze, smokes, and women (the age difference between Hoffman and Adams is most pronounced). In two long scenes — in Dodd’s bunker and in jail (Dodd is arrested on a civil offense for failing to register his consortium as a medical school) — Dodd interrogates Freddy, and it’s to Anderson’s credit that Dodd’s mesmeric power and Freddy’s willingness to confess to hating himself, fucking his aunt, and abandoning the only girl who loved him become confused; Dodd is a charlatan, and Freddy, to use the psychobabble of our age, “confronts his demons.” But to what end? Anderson hedges, at which point this fascinating movie sputters to its unsatisfying conclusion. In one of those Hoffman humiliation scenes (this one sexually), Anderson hints that Mrs. Dodd is really The Master, and he sets Adams up to play her as such (she’s shot and told to act as if she were a 19th century daguerreotype), but nothing happens. Long ago, when Anderson didn’t dream of sixty millimeter, the story of an aging lonely man played by Philip Baker Hall saving John C. Reilly’s life one cigarette and coffee cup at a time had the outlines to support a number of compelling ambiguities. Hard Eight remains Anderson’s most realized film.The Master is a hundred thirty-five minutes of a huckster losing interest in a promising protégé, as we should with Anderson.