In one way or another, we're all running towards the prospect of having full control over our lives. Maybe we think if we earn up enough money we can finally grab hold of that status quo or perhaps it's that dream of being in the right place at the right time that gets us out of bed. But none of us are truly free. Whether you're a prince or a pauper, we all have responsibilities, nobody is devoid of answering to a higher power. It's a futile chase, but it's one we keep sprinting towards anyway. Leave it to the insightful gaze of Paul Thomas Anderson to contemplate that existential exercise with an extra profound gaze in his 2012 feature The Master.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has just gotten back from fighting in World War II. The conflict and his experience killing other humans, not to mention his own personal mental health issues that existed long before the war began, have left him psychologically distraught. As The Master begins, Quell is adrift. Where does his life go now? But in a seemingly directionless world, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) appears. Running a movement known as The Cause that, among other achievements, claims to be able to allow people to explore their past lives, Dodd takes in Quell. From here, a connection forms as Quell explores a potential new purpose while Dodd tries to bring The Cause to even greater prominence.
Looking back on the initial reviews that greeted The Master, I was surprised by how many critics got stuck up on the question of "what does it mean?" The Master doesn't wear its themes on its sleeves, but it seemed clear (to me at least) what ideas the film is chasing after. Not only is The Master about the elusiveness of total control over one's life, but it's also about the toxic ways we fill the holes in our hearts. Quell is a man who clearly needs serious psychiatric help, but America, in this era, doesn't have a structure in place to help returning soldiers with intense mental health disorders. He's been used for the good fight, but now that everyone wants to get back to "normal", he's being hidden under a rug. Lancaster Dodd's cult is a way for him to find meaning and an anchor in the middle of all this turmoil.
This situation also makes great use of a post-World War II backdrop. For Quell, killing and the psychological turmoil that's stemmed from it has become his norm, what else does he know? What else can he know? He may be finished with the war, but the war is not finished with him. You can't just turn off these elements like a lightbulb. Navigating what his status quo even looks like now makes it possible for him to become seduced by Dodd's cult and make the psyche of this character all the more fascinating to watch unfold. Plus, Anderson's refusal to speed the film up feels like a perfect reflection of exploring a post-World War II landscape. There is no new global conflict to rush into, the future is a terrifying blank canvas for someone like Quell and that's perfectly reflected in The Master's pacing.
Telling the story like this also allows plenty of opportunities for the central performances to breathe, with Phoenix and Hoffman, in particular, sharing a handful of tete-a-tete exchanges that work so well because Anderson refuses to barrel on through to the next scene. Each of these two delivers outstanding work in The Master even they're separated from one another, with Hoffman proving especially impressive. In his screentime, he renders a personality that could believably entice people to follow him to the ends of the Earth while providing hints of the vulnerable human being that, as the character's son puts it, "is making this up as he goes along."
Phoenix, for his part, conveys authenticity, not a melodramatic caricature, in his portrayal of Quell as someone who is psychologically tormented. This actor just kept on delivering outstanding lead performances throughout the 2010s (Her and You Were Never Really Here are his other two crown jewels from this era) and The Master is certainly part of that trend. Phoenix and the other actors are captured by Mihai Mălaimare Jr.'s unforgettable cinematography, which makes glorious use of 65mm film. Take any frame from The Master and it looks like something you could frame on a wall. The way you can take in the rich detail of any object in a shot, the gorgeous way natural light looks on-camera, those bright blue hues of the ocean, it all looks stunning.
Looking back on the initial critical reception of The Master, it's understandable to see so many reviews that were concerned exclusively with figuring out just what the movie means. Is it a Scientology parable? A queer allegory? A political commentary? Maybe it's all those things and more, but what I found so intoxicating about The Master is how it functions so well as all these things at once while also just working as an atmospheric exercise. There's an aching woe at the heart of this project captured by its two lead performances, one that understands that we are never free of greater influences on our lives. We can run, we can hide, we can drink ourselves silly, but the masters that control our lives are never erased. There is pain here in The Master along with boundless ways this central story can be interpreted. Forgive the obvious pun, but it's masterful filmmaking of the most impressive order, another Paul Thomas Anderson home run that may just be the greatest movie of 2012.