Director Paul Thomas Anderson does more than just put pictures up on a screen. He is an artist that creates a canvas, lush and beautiful. Then he coaxes performances from actors that are some of the best in current cinema.
His latest movie, “The Master,” is a prime example.
The story focuses on two diametrically different individuals. First to be introduced is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Freddie is a drifter that we first see as a sailor at the end of World War II. He has fashioned a woman out of sand on the beach and is drinking something he created from coconuts and alcohol. When Freddie mimics having sex with the sand woman, one can safely assume there is something wrong with him.
After failing at finding life after the war, Freddie finds his way to a boat moored in San Francisco. On board is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the self-proclaimed Master. Dodd is the inventor of a new religion that looks at the person and seeks to free the person from past entanglements.
Freddie stows away on the boat but is discovered. When he is taken to see Dodd, Dodd is drawn to Freddie – because he sees Freddie as damaged and because Freddie is skilled with alcohol.
Dodd makes Freddie a project, believing if he can get Freddie out of his malaise, then it will be a great example of the power of his method.
But Freddie is unstable to the point that Dodd cannot do much with him. Freddie is violent and drinks to excess. He is reactive and unable to live with his emotions.
Freddie becomes a point of contention with Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). She has nothing but bad thoughts about Freddie.
And Peggy has a power over Dodd that she uses in an almost Lady Macbeth manner. She declares that she does not want Freddie around, putting her further at odds with Dodd.
But Dodd and Freddie are mirror images of each other. Dodd is strong and self-assured; Freddie is weak and never sure of who he is or what he is to be. This study of the two is the movie’s focus and where the movie’s greatest strength lies.
“The Master” explores how a damaged man is presented with a religion that claims to be able to help him be whole.
But that religion has nothing but a self-centered focus, with no moral basis, which does not help someone like Freddie. This man needs more than a reading of his past to make him well.
This movie is one of the best so far this year. Now, it does contain overt sexuality, nudity and vulgarity. To portray a character like Freddie Quell, this has to be part of the story.
Freddie is a fallen creature, and Anderson presents his depravity without reservation. In this manner, the viewer can see how far one can fall.
Because Dodd’s religion is only concerned with freeing people from their past, there is no room for morality.
Dodd’s belief is that the moral thing is to free people from their past. But this makes no room for how people treat each other.
“The Master” is also one of the best of the year because of the work done by this collection of actors. Phoenix, Hoffman, Adams – they’re actors of the highest quality.
As for Phoenix, he becomes Freddie Quell. He walks in a tortured way. His mouth is twisted. Even the way he stands reveals a man damaged by life.
I believe “The Master” will be one of the most nominated movies at next year’s Oscars.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix: Freddie Quell; Philip Seymour Hoffman: Lancaster Dodd/The Master; Amy Adams: Peggy Dodd; Jesse Plemons: Val Dodd; Ambyr Childers: Elizabeth Dodd; Rami Malek: Clark.
The movie’s website is here.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.