In director Paul Thomas Anderson’s collected works, if there were ever a film that deserved to be called “Punch Drunk Love,” it’s “The Master.” Much of the film follows Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Freddie Quell, as he moves from job to job—and job to cult—creatively mixing drinks out of whatever is available to him. In the opening sequence, he drinks the ethanol from a bombshell, mixed with some form of desert island fruit. Later, he incorporates dark room chemicals into his concoction. The drinking serves a thematic purpose—the film is fundamentally about intoxication and the ways people mask what Anderson thinks of as life’s fundamental meaninglessness. But it works on another level too, for this is film making of such high quality that it’s impossible not to get drunk on its strength.
This is a Serious Film—not a movie. This is a film that didn’t win Best Picture at the Venice Film Festival because it had already won the maximum number of top awards allowed by the festival’s rules. If personal experience is any indicator, the line outside theaters showing this movie will be a prime spot for “Annie Hall” re-enactors to talk loudly about the film and Anderson’s early works. In short, it has been praised. And certainly it deserves the accolades even on purely technical grounds. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Lancaster Dodd, a cult leader in the vein of L. Ron Hubbard, is so captivating that it’s fittingly hard to maintain a critical perspective on his drunken illusions.
Like Dirk Diggler, an early Anderson creation, Dodd is a study in animal magnetism, only his equivalent of Mark Wahlberg’s large prosthetic member is an understanding smile and some of the best oratorical tone this side of the President. When Hoffman’s skill is matched with Joaquin Phoenix’s unnerving performance of man as pure beast, it becomes easy to trade a slower moving plot for hours of talking, thrashing, and drinking. In an early scene, a drunk Dodd calls Freddie in for some “informal processing”—a method by which members of the Cause are able to time travel to cure their souls of ailments accrued in past lives. Dodd is—theoretically—interested in transcendence and time travel; Freddie is interested in the two minutes on either side of the present. For the duration of the scene, Dodd grills Freddie about his transgressions, and it’s like watching an unstoppable force meet an immovable object. The scene is pure electric tension.
Behind many such brilliant moments is Jonny Greenwood’s uneasy score. The main theme sounds like a broken clock. A sinister string bass line provides an interminable rhythm that Greenwood heckles with off-beat percussion. This is the sound of Freddie’s addled mind. When he first reconciles with Dodd, the music resolves, but quickly sours with dissonance. As with the film’s alcohol and religion, every moment of clarity and happiness is ephemeral. Even such a fine Master can’t sustain the resolutions.
The instability of Freddie’s ideals provide the central tension of the film. In the opening sequence, his division of the Navy is stranded on an island. As Freddie drinks, some of the men sculpt a gigantic woman in the sand. At the end of the sequence, Freddie lies down beside her and closes his eyes. This image recurs at two other points, and is core to the film’s meaning. When Dodd processes Freddie, Freddie recalls the girl he wanted to marry. As he remembers her, we see her tower above him—gigantic like the sand woman. Dodd, too, is larger than life—a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher—and it is this ideal that Freddie clings to because, as Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) says, he “can’t take this life straight.” He spends the film blindly willing his ideals into reality, but like the dissonance in a half-resolved chord, he never can merge the two. In a later scene, he paces back and forth between a wall and a window under Dodd’s order, attempting to feel a spirit behind each. In this scene and throughout the film, he wears shirts buttoned to the neck and suits that clutch his hunched Homo erectus body like a strait jacket. Ultimately, the Cause’s meaning is as ill-fitting, and he is unable to feel anything more than the wearing wood of the wall.
In the bleak world of this film, there is no more legitimate belief than the Cause—only people who serve one another’s ideologies in order to bring meaning to their lives.Though brilliant, its tone is slightly monochromatic, its incessant sickliness coming to seem almost unimaginative at times. Yet still the potion is strong, and its depiction of life on Earth hits like a shot of paint thinner: for every man, a master and a thousand grains of disordered sand.
—Staff writer Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.