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Joaquin Phoenix in "The Master"

A Masterful Delirium

written by: on August 21, 2012

A preview screening of The Master at the Music Box Theatre on Thursday night elicited audible gasps and nervous laughter from the audience on several occasions. Projected in jaw-dropping 70mm format, the film is a stunning example of how atmosphere can cause opposite emotions (like intense discomfort and euphoria) to run parallel.

The two main characters–Joaquin Phoenix’s unhinged WWII veteran and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s charismatic cult leader–circle each other in a dance that tip-toes along the border of sanity. Music often aids in the disquiet, as a spine-tingling pluck of strings or an ominous clack on a wooden block signals the descent of one or both of the characters into madness.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as "The Master"

Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) poses for a photo in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master”

While not the best entry in Anderson’s lexicon (2007’s There Will Be Blood holds that distinction), the movie still delivers–visually, emotionally and psychologically. The experience is painfully visceral at times, as the performances seem almost too real and the signs of impending doom much too close for comfort.

With a brilliantly sinister score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson’s most unsettling film to date. Greenwood is a deft composer, allowing the ambience to creep up slowly rather than attack outright. Having worked with Anderson before on the flawless soundtrack to There Will Be Blood, Greenwood knows how to complement the director’s cryptic storytelling style without upstaging it. Magically, Anderson and Greenwood work in tandem– much like the celebrated director/composer pairings of Steven Spielberg/John Williams and Tim Burton/Danny Elfman.

From the moment Freddie Quell (Phoenix) meets Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), their chemistry lights up the room. Dodd is obviously modeled after Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard: a self-proclaimed prophet who sees drifters like Freddie as lost souls he can recruit. The Cause is never clearly defined–in fact, Dodd often bungles his own explanations of how the universe works–but Freddie’s history of trauma, abuse and severe mental illness makes him the perfect candidate for brainwashing.

Freddie: What do you do?

The Master: I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher…but above all, I am a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.

Although his twitchy behavior often escalates into violence, Freddie has his moments of sweetness as well. His first love–sixteen-year-old Doris (Madisen Beaty)–sings him an Andrews Sisters tune that still lingers on his lips many years later: “Don’t sit under the apple tree/with anyone else but me.” The sight of a pretty salesgirl at the mall is underscored by Ella Fitzgerald’s sultry rendition of “Get Thee Behind Me Satan”– but Freddie is bashful when she begins to remove her clothes. Even Dodd tries to woo him with song, keeping Freddie as attached to his cult family as he is to the warmth of a woman’s bosom.

However, Greenwood’s original score is what cements the film in a perpetual state of eeriness. By coupling the tribal beat of a ticking clock with an erratic cello that raises goosebumps at every twist and turn, the music mirrors the frightening and perplexing nature of the film itself.

The audience never knows what to expect from the story, the characters or the soundtrack that undulates with encroaching dread. Often, the slow-building suspense hangs so thick in the air–like when Dodd first initiates Freddie into The Cause through a series of mentally tortuous “applications”– that even the most delicate of knives could could cut the tension in half.


Various Artists – The Master Soundtrack tracklist:

  1. “Overtones”
  2. “Time Hole”
  3. “Back Beyond”
  4. “Get Thee Behind Me Satan”  (Ella Fitzgerald)
  5. “Alethia”
  6. “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)” – (Madisen Beaty)
  7. “Atomic Healer”
  8. “Able-Bodied Seamen:
  9. “The Split Saber”
  10. “Baton Sparks”
  11. “No Other Love” (Jo Stafford)
  12. “His Master’s Voice”
  13. “Application 45 Version 1”
  14. “Changing Partners” (Helen Forrest)
  15. “Sweetness of Freddie”