The crowd stretched down the block and around the corner, hundreds of people pouring onto Southport on a night when the Cubs weren’t in town for the special Chicago screening of The Master last night. People were palpably excited, checking and re-checking tickets, everyone worried about an oversell. I stood just inside the theater with a friend, watching pickups at will call. It was a last minute arrangement and a lot of people bought their tickets on the fly. It was a scramble, a mad dash to be included. People had been trying to get in all day, an usher told us. One guy offered hundreds of dollars if they’d slip him a ticket.
“It’s crazy,” the usher said. “I’ve never seen this before.”
My friend and I smiled. We had. Five years ago.
The Master is writer/director PT Anderson’s first film since There Will Be Blood—for my money, one of only a very small handful of films from the 2000s that matters in any real way—and I’m not sure that The Master actually tops that film, which is a bona fide masterpiece, but that’s just it. I’m not sure. Because The Master is dense in a way Blood wasn’t. It’s much more subtle, working on you as insidiously as the cult leader played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s an earthier movie, less critical of culture and more inquisitive about human nature. There Will Be Blood was about money and greed and power and the things people can acquire. The Master is more about the intangibles in life -- desire and ego and rivalry and control.
It is, without doubt, one of the best films you’ll see this year. (Probably, this decade.) Maybe even the best. I know it’s early still—we’re not even into award season proper and there are a lot of films left to see—but it’s hard to imagine a movie coming together in a way that is more satisfying than this one. From the technical proficiency—Anderson is a consummate technician—to the near flawless execution of thematic material, The Master requires all of your concentration and it will leave you thinking long after it’s over. It’s provoking and weirdly funny, with some of the most ominous moments lightened by surprisingly base touches of humor. It’s sad without ever asking for sympathy. It’s critical but not condemning.
And at its center are two phenomenal performances from Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. If you’ve ever wondered how people get sucked into cults, Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd is how. He’s friendly, welcoming, avuncular. He just wants what’s best for you. He sees the empty spaces inside and he wants to fill them, wants to help you reach your full potential. That he also wants your total unquestioning loyalty and that he is probably certifiably insane feels irrelevant. Because he’s helping you. Hoffman swings between motivational speaker, charismatic leader, and paranoid control freak. He’s terrific.
But Phoenix is ASTOUNDING. I can’t say his performance is a revelation, because we already know he’s a talented actor, but watching him in The Master feels like rediscovering Joaquin Phoenix. The pretentious asshole of the last few years vanishes completely in Freddie Quell. He’s thin and drawn, borderline haggard, a little bit hunched and his mouth partially immobilized, suggesting an injury we never see. The physical transformation is one thing, but his emotions swim so close to the surface, all the magnetism of his early performances is returned in full force. Joaquin Phoenix is electric.
As for the Scientology angle, yeah, it’s there. But this is not really a scathing condemnation of Scientology itself, so much as Xenu’s roots in L. Ron Hubbard’s writing providing the framework for Anderson’s meditation on control. Dodd’s acolytes submit to “processing”, in which Dodd roots out their deepest fears and secrets; he talks about time travel and rebirth, and Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams), says this is “work you do for a billion years.” The Xenu flourishes are there, but it’s is not a study in Scientology. In fact, if you didn’t know going in what inspired Dodd’s cult, The Cause, you probably would never be able to make the connection. That actually helps—it keeps the film from feeling sensationalized.
“So?” my friend asked when the movie was over. “How far will it go?”
“All the way to the Dolby ,” I said.
All the way to the Dolby.
(Lainey: you see now why I’m mad at her! MAD! And jealous! By the way, a lot of others, all over the place, are as hard as Sarah is over The Master after the Chicago screening. Click here for some other quick reactions and below the new trailer.)