The Master

The wake of a large ship, white froth churned up amidst sparkling aquamarine water. Paradise with a beach, and an Amazon goddess with breasts the size of mountains emerges from the sand, molded by eager hands. Sailors of the last Great War work together to form this tribute to the feminine ideal . . . and then a skinny dude with crazy eyes starts humping the inert object like a shell-shocked, battle-weary Luther Billis driven mad by jungle rot and home-brewed moonshine. This is “There is Nothing Like a Dame” as interpreted by director Paul (I drink your milkshake!) Thomas (I drink it up!) Anderson.

So opens The Master, a film so brilliant, so confusing, so utterly baffling that no two reviews seem to be able to tell you what it is about. I’m not even going to try because I don’t really know. The plot may have something to do with a cult-like religion called The Cause, very loosely based on Scientology, but whether or not the meaning of the film has anything to do with that is debatable. This is not exactly The Tom Cruise Story. Here are five different readings on how it could be interpreted. I’m going to have to see it again to make up my mind, although I have to admit that I’m partial to Theory No. 3.

Since I can’t give you a synopsis on the meaning of the plot, I will tell you the acting and cinematography are spectacular and the score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood is haunting and strange. I’ve pretty much concluded that Joaquin Phoenix must be exactly like the character he plays of Freddie Quell, because no one can act that batshit without having had a little taste of it in real life. Remember when he quit acting to become a rapper? Yeah, he’s been down that psychopath through the crazy woods at least a little bit. There is a scene where Freddie has been tossed in the slammer and is confined in an adjacent cell to Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Phoenix goes berserk, smashing the toilet and slamming himself against the undercarriage of a hanging bunk, repeatedly ramming his head until the rage has left his body and he is completely drained. As is the audience, for this is a performance so physical that you leave the theater almost as exhausted as he was.

“Lancaster Dodd” is one of the great movie character names – it ranks right up there with Elmer Gantry and Atticus Finch. Philip Seymour Hoffman is also amazing as the charming cult leader who is the only one intrigued and amused by Freddie’s bizarre behavior. The nature of this relationship is hinted at in the final scene, when Hoffman performs a little song which seems far too definitive for a movie this baffling. Watching Hoffman and Phoenix share the screen together is real treat, and I’m sure that Hollywood will be lining up to throw nominations at them. Can’t wait for the director’s cut of this—I hope it has a blooper reel!

No worries about shaky cameras here — the cinematography and shot composition give the film the feeling of a lush drama from the forties, and director Paul Thomas Anderson is a master at creating tension within the frame. Visually beautiful, it is a movie that begs to be rewatched so you don’t miss a moment. You probably still won’t understand it, but at least you’ll get to see the naked party scene again.

Barf Bag Rating: ZERO BAGS

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