The Master Returns

(Because of the unexpected nature of last night’s screening and the desire to get this up in a timely manner, I’ll be posting this week’s non-narrative film update on Monday)

I saw The Master last night. For those of you who don’t know, the screening had been announced 24 hours beforehand, and it may be the only time that the film screens in its intended format, 70 millimeter film, in Chicago. I hope that’s not the case, because I want others to have the chance to see this movie the way it was meant to be seen.

Jaoquin Phoenix plays the Renfield to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s psychic Dracula. Phoenix is an animal, drunken, wild and destructive, and Hoffman’s charismatic Lancaster Dodd is a man that believes human beings are not animals. He believes we are better than animals, that we have souls that have been alive for trillions of years. Into his belief system he has ensnared apostles all over the U.S., chief among them his wife, played with an unbreakable intensity and power that I’ve never seen from Amy Adams before.

The scenes between Phoenix and Hoffman are the movie’s best, as Phoenix’s violence collides with Hoffman’s calming platitudes. The crux of the film occurs in a jail cell. Hoffman and Phoenix are dragged into their cells. Hoffman stands, unaffected by his arrest, while Phoenix goes on a rampage, smashing his toilet, kicking the wall, screaming at Hoffman, who is only angered by the fact that he can’t seem to get through to Phoenix. Phoenix is his one pupil that seems completely resistant to his methods. The contrast between the two characters, one trying to civilize the other, one dragging the other into drunkenness is what makes The Master so exciting.

Somewhere between the major, feeling-the-rotation-of-the-Earth masterpiece that was There Will Be Blood and the minor, who-cares-about-the-world-out-there originality of Punch-Drunk Love, The Master is Anderson leaving his past behind. In his last three films, Anderson has become his own filmmaker, and a filmmaker who is never comfortable. He will never make another There Will Be Blood, and those who go into The Master expecting Daniel Plainview will be disappointed. Those who go in ready for another masterwork from the best American filmmaker of the last 16 years, on the other hand, will surely have their expectations met.

The headlines have been about Scientology, and that’s what they’ll continue to be, but The Master isn’t about Scientology. It’s about something much larger. The idea of human being as animal, the concept (or perhaps the lie) of freedom, and the peace we seem to search for in places that can only breed more violence are ideas that existed long before Scientology. If Anderson had made a film merely about Scientology, it may have been great. But I have little doubt that it would have only been a tenth as great as The Master.