The Paul Thomas Anderson film I saw in 1997 was “Boogie Nights”. My expectations were relatively low. I predicted a small indie, perhaps of a humorously titillating nature. I was stunned by the greatness, which was then displayed before me. It was a moving tale of a loner, played by Mark Wahlberg (then known primarily as rapper Marky-Mark), who joined a film production crew and became a porn star. But it was not some raunchy comedy. “Boogie Nights” was a story about a family, if you will, comprised of a handful of loners, each suffering from the aching desire to belong. Fifteen years later, there are scenes I shall never forget. As I walked out of that theatre that day, I knew this was a director to watch.
Since that time, Anderson has created two masterpieces, “Magnolia” and “There Will Be Blood.” So it was with the highest of expectations that I eagerly ventured to the theatre recently to soak in Anderson’s latest, “The Master.” I had read reviews of ambiguity, of a film with no direction, and, alas, no meaning. Yet I am drawn to Anderson’s films as I was those of the great Stanley Kubrick.
And you know what? Anderson did not disappoint. “The Master” is another winner from our greatest young director. As with “Boogie Nights,” it tells the story of a loner seeking to belong. This time the loner is played by Joaquin Phoenix, in the most measured yet intense performance of his career. Phoenix is Freddy Quell, a WWII vet, diagnosed with what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, who latches onto a cult known as “The Cause,” loosely based on the Church of Scientology. The Cause is headed by Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman, who, as Lancaster Dodd, turns in yet another knockout performance as a charismatic, intelligent salesman with nothing in particular to sell, save for his own cult of personality.
Freddie is a powder keg of pent-up energy. His prison scene makes Robert DeNiro in “Raging Bull” seem tame. Freddie simply needs a home and a best friend, and Dodd eagerly complies. As the vapidity of The Cause is slowly revealed to him, Freddie remains loyal to Dodd, defending him against those he surmises would inflict harm to either The Cause or to Dodd himself. This is not a movie about Scientology, or even of cults in general. This is a movie about belonging. About best friends who would do anything for one another, provided one is the “master” and the other the protégé.
At this juncture, I would be remiss not to mention Amy Adams’ role as Dodd’s supportive yet controlling wife, the brains behind The Cause. It is her quiet strength that keeps The Cause alive, and keeps Dodd focused. Her performance is worthy of a Supporting Actress Oscar. Either Phoenix or Hoffman is deserving of the Best Actor Oscar. If I were a voter, I’m not sure I’d know whom to choose.
As with most Anderson pictures, this is a big, important film. Again, it has scenes I shall never forget. I’m glad I saw it. I can’t wait to see it again. But if I had to fault it, I believe it’s missing the big “knockout punch” scene at the end – the frog scene in “Magnolia,” or the bowling alley scene in “There Will Be Blood.”
There isn’t anything at the end of “The Master” that pushes it beyond the realm of greatness into the realm of a masterpiece. I realize this criticism is one which cannot be applied to just any piece of cinematic work. It’s just that Anderson has set the bar so high, and I expect a work of art every time. Here, I’ll accept mere greatness. I don’t expect to see a better film this year. If I do, I’ll gladly share.