2010-2019: Best Films of the Past Decade: Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams

Watching Together While Apart

How to Keep Global Movie Culture Alive and Well?

Alone/Together in the Dark

I had an interesting argument a couple of weeks ago with a cherished colleague and friend, who’s also a film critic.  He claimed, based on his common sense, that during the Coronavirus pandemic, viewers wish to see escapist entertainment, sort of fluffy and undemanding fare, such as broad comedies, dazzling musicals, fast-paced actioners and adventures.

I have never fully subscribed to the escapist theory–in essence, that in dreary times, audiences would opt for everything and anything that would let them forget for a few hours the surrounding grim reality.

When an international magazine asked for my choices of the great films of the past decade, I began to construct lists of films that have impressed me at their initial release, and have continued to linger in memory in terms of ideas, motifs, characters, images, and sounds.

For purposes of simplicity, my list 30 great movies of the past decade is presented alphabetically.  Obviously, the films reflect my taste as I look back and revisit them from a distance.  As such, they are inevitably singular and biased.  There’s no need to agree with my filmic hierarchy, but as a critic, it’s my duty and privilege to expose readers to films they might not have seen upon initial release, or wish to revisit from a different viewpoint–with the privileged perspective of time.

The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s new drama, reaffirms his status as one of the most audacious directors working in American cinema today.

By standards of Hollywood, Anderson is a “slow” director—the opposite of the prolific and diverse Soderbergh, who now makes one or two pictures per year. The Master is his first film in five years, and only sixth feature in a career spanning 16 years.  Of all the directors in his cohort (Tarantino, Alexander Payne, and David O. Russell included), he is the only one who has not made a bad or mediocre film.

An impressive portrait of drifters and seekers in post-World War II America, a society that’s rapidly changing, The Master is an honorable follow-up to the director’s 2007 Oscar-nominated epic, There Will Be Blood, which is his crowning achievement to date.

Our Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

Unabashedly ambitious as director and supremely skillful as craftsman, Anderson makes films that are impressive in their bold ideas, characterizations, performances, and technical mastery. Despite the fact that “The Master” falls short of greatness and is not as compelling as “There Will Be Blood,” it still reveals a visionary director determined to develop as an artist–and not to repeat himself.

After an auspicious beginning with two ensemble-driven films, “Boogie Nights” in 1997 and “Magnolia” in 1999, Anderson has moved into in-depth, more focused narratives that revolve around a small number of personas, like “There Will Be Blood.”   “The Master,” set in 1950, depicts the journey of one disturbed Navy vet, who is unsettled by his war experience and uncertain of his future.

What unifies this chronicle, which consists of big set-pieces, is the great complementary acting of Joaquin Phoenix, in a comeback turn, and the always reliable Philip Seymour Hoffman (who has appeared in all of Anderson’s pictures except for the last one).  Phoenix and Hoffman play two vastly different, yet charismatic, men. One is a spontaneous, irresponsible, often dangerous drifter, looking for his place in the world.  The other is an intellectual charlatan, a heavy-duty talker, who claims to know all the answers to life’s problems, willing to manipulate others with his presumably useful knowledge.

Rumors have been circulatingd in town that “The Master” will be a critical anatomy of Scientology. The controversial religion was recently in the news again, due to the high-profile divorce of Katie Holmes from Tom Cruise, a champion of Scientology.  What unfolds on screen, however, is a tale that could apply to other spiritual (New Age) and religious systems.

“The Master” shows fascination with the birth of new alternative spiritual factions, from Eastern asceticism to Dianetics. The 1950s are depicted as a crucial decade in which Americans began to build grassroots communities devoted to realizing visions of human potential.

World-premiering this week at the Venice Film Fest (in competition) and playing at Toronto Film Fest next week, “The Master” will be released by the Weinstein Company on September 21, a suitable date announcing the beginning of the fall season and the release of serious, Oscar caliber movies. (While the status of “The Master”” as Best Picture contender is iffy, both Phoenix and Hoffman deserve serious consideration for Oscar nominations).

Visually striking, and technically a feast to the eyes and ears, “The Master”” was shot in the 70mm format, and, given the choice, it should be seen in movie theaters equipped for such showings.

The first, almost silent reel focuses on the deviant conduct of the sailor Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a strange (to say the least), charismatic, sex-obsessed man, who suffers from a vague nervous condition upon discharge from WWII.

Working as a photographer at a department store, Freddie violates rules right and left, like assaulting customers, and showing erratic behavior on other occasions, which costs him his job. At his next job, working in cabbage fields, Freddie offers a mysterious, lethal drink to a fellow migrant worker, which forces him to escape to San Francisco and board a grand, elegant ship heading to New York City via Panama.

It’s here that Freddie first encounters Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a charming man who would become his friend/nemesis and equal/counterpart. (Did Anderson name the character after Burt Lancaster, who won an Oscar for playing the charlatan evangelist in Richard Brooks’ 1960 “Ëlmer Gantry”?) Dodd immediately recognizes Freddie as a scoundrel—he calls him animal.  But he still welcomes the stowaway, for his specialty in making nasty cocktails (which invariably evokes, “Oh My God!” from the drinkers) and for the challenge of treating and curing him from “past mistakes.”  Setting people straight is the goal of Dodd’s mystical improvement enterprise, simply named “The Cause.”

In intense “recording” sessions, Dodd interrogates his subject, repeating the same questions four or five time, pretending to go for ”the truth,” in a relentless search, presumably motivated by his genuine care and concern for Freddie.

It turns out that the voyage and big party represent a wedding cruise for Dodd’s daughter, Susan (Jillian Bell) and her future husband Clark (Rami Malek). Among the participants are Dodd’s wife, Mary Sue (Amy Adams), his son Val (Jesse Plemons), and other distinguished members of The Cause.

Later, at a meeting in Manhattan, Dodd expresses his basic values, observing that human beings are not animals and, more importantly, that, with the proper training (namely, his intervention), individuals can be purged of their vices, be cured, and begin new healthier, lives

Secrets, disclosures and revelations ensue, as when Val criticizes his father’s preaching, claiming that Dodd is making/faking all this up. Soon, Freddie, Dodd’s main target, begins to lose it, and at one point attacks some cops, who come to arrest Dodd for fraudulent behavior, in an outburst of rage.

Dramatically, the narrative is uneven in terms of involvement.  While there are many fascinating scenes, charged encounters, and provocative confrontations, occasionally, Anderson the writer resorts to lengthy monologues (speeches) and talk-driven sequences that are borderline verbose, even if they are meant to illustrate the recurring themes of The Cause—and his feature.  The plot from that point on gets less logical and more erratic and arbitrary. This is manifest in a David Lean-like scene in which Dodd challenges Freddie to a motorcycle competition in the open desert, as if their ongoing rivalry and threatening battle of wills were not sufficient enough.

Gradually, the two men see through each other: Freddie realizes that Dodd might be a fake and a fraud, and Dodd realizes that Freddie might be dangerous and could cause personal as well as professional harm.

Rest of the tale is less compelling, and discerning critics (and viewers) may be able to point out at what point the narrative begins to lose its steam and dramatic momentum. Moreover, it doesn’t help that the conclusion is not particularly satisfying–it feels as if Anderson were considering different finales before choosing the current one).

Certain aspects of “The Cause” will inevitably be compared to L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, such as the processing sequences, prolific writing, historical time frame, interrogation methods, and so on, but as I had already pointed, Anderson’s ideological targets are broader and go beyond Scientology.

Anderson has always been attracted to characters that are outsiders of different social classes, who are able to create distinctive subcultures that allow them to feel integrated as members of close-knit communities.  The communes can be deviant (in “Boogie Nights,” it was the porn industry-community), or more legitimate and institutionalized ones.

In “The Master,” Freddie embodies the classic American outsider, who comes into a community that shapes and changes him.  On one level, the tale unfolds as a tragic love bond between Freddie and the Master. Freddie longs to be part of something bigger than himself, yet he can’t commit to anybody or anything for too long (including a girlfriend he claims to love years after they had met). For his part, the Master yearns for Freddie to be the loyal and reliable son he never had, yet can’t quite make that work. (Throughout, Dodd shows contempt for his son-in-law Clark, who is a weakling).

In a comeback role (after threatening to give up acting altogether), Joaquin Phoenix is extremely well cast as the unnerving and unbalanced Freddie, a complex and complicated man who is weird in every possible way, physical, mental and emotional; just watch the way he walks or carried his soldier.  Much more slender than the norm, Phoenix is extremely handsome in this film, with a look that resembles the young Mel Gibson.

Has Philip Seymour Hoffman ever given a bad or mediocre performance? Here, he again excels in playing a persuasive man capable of inspiring, manipulating, and lying to large and diverse following. Hoffman is brilliant in expressing Dodd’s theories, easily modified to fit the particular audience he talks to.

Women are underrepresented in this tale, just as they were in “There Will Be Blood.” In a restrained but forceful performance, Amy Adams (who co-starred with Hoffman in “Doubt”) plays Dodd’s obedient and dutiful wife, a femme who notices every small detail and always watches over Dodd, Val, and the others.  She has a particularly powerful scene, jerking off her husband in front of a mirror, forcing him to climax, while commenting that he can “fool around so long as no one in public sees it.”

Offering many visual pleasures, “The Master” marks the first time that Anderson has worked with a cinematographer other than the brilliant Robert Elswit (who was busy shooting Gilory’s “The Bourne Legacy”). This film was shot by the Romanian director of photography Mihai Malaimareh Jr., who had worked on Coppola’s “Youth Without Youth” and “Tetro.”

Jonny Greenwood, who has composed the striking music for “There Will Be Blood,” provides yet another forceful and discordant, deliberately non-melodic score, which serves well the characters’ shifting emotions and contradictory situations.

Production values are striking across the board, most notably the detailed design by David Crank and Jack Fisk, authentic costumes by Mark Bridges, and sharp editing, which highlights effectively the text’s oppositions and dichotomies, by Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty.

MPAA Rating: R

Running time: 133 Minutes