We stare into The Master’s eyes, the many pairs that crowd around us and stare back. They probe us, undress us, demand we undress them. “Watch my eyes,” Amy Adam’s character commands as she faces the camera. “Now turn my eyes black.” Lo! Her irises dissolve from blue to a pearly black.
It is one of many genius strokes in a movie that declares its genius at every turn, framing every scene, every performance, with a deliberate, intense care, an assuring touch to say, “You are watching these people in this story from the perfect vantage point. You could not see it any other way.” We stare at these eyes so clearly we seem to penetrate the souls behind them, as vivid and readable as their surface.
We meet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) with eyes off-balance like a broken teeter-totter. One bulges out, the other squints — his vision, like the rest of his body and mind, functions at half capacity. In his free time he has sex, thinks of sex and bursts into violent fits. He brews cocktails with ingredients like paint thinner and gasoline; then he drinks them.
Freddie returns from World War II, broken by vice, disorder, longing — where one begins and the other ends, who knows. Wandering drunkenly from one job to the other, he stumbles onto a cruise boat and meets the film’s other prominent pair of eyes: that of Lancaster “The Master” Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a writer, cult leader and self-appointed doctor whose shifty eyes dart across Freddie and judge him more animal than human. He’s a squat intellectual with a Hemingway moustache and booming, articulate voice, on the opposite side of the spectrum from Freddie. But a bond forms: Dodd sees potential in Freddie, or maybe he just likes his booze; Freddie’s id takes some comfort in Dodd’s super-ego, or maybe he just wants to make love to Dodd’s daughter (Ambyr Childers), or his wife (Amy Adams), or both.
The reality of their relationship eludes us. On the surface, it heralds back to Victor of Aveyron, the “wild boy” who a physician taught to be human. Dodd wants to educate Freddie in the same way, to teach a broken mind spirituality and depth. But something else compels the connection. Early on, Dodd gives Freddie a series of questions with the command he must not blink, or they start over. Shaking, tearing, sputtering — and still refusing to blink! — Freddie answers as Dodd asks in a hushed voice the same questions over and over. The audience writhes, Freddie’s eyes go red, and finally Dodd says, “Now close your eyes.” Freddie shuts them. The screen goes black — relieved.
It’s a deft, awesome sequence, deceptively simple in execution and chock-full of lingering questions, including ones not asked by Dodd.
We never find out the truth of this relationship — the master and his student, the man and his pet — as they sometimes switch roles, sometimes explore other roles, all in search of a truth for themselves. The film is ambiguous, but it is not aimless. Though its last half hour may swirl too lazily for some when they think it should rush forward, “The Master” floats on such mastery of filmmaking language, spoken with such ease, it commands our attention. The man at the helm, Paul Thomas Anderson, has proven in less than two decades he is a cinematic force of nature. He films the world with an eye older than its body, and after works like “There Will Be Blood” and “Magnolia” he feels no need to prove himself. He need only tell a simple story with the nuance of human experience to grip us tight.
Hoffman has played nebbish men and powerful orators before, all with conviction. Here he is the latter, with such gusto that we’re enraptured by his spell. Phoenix returns from his long pseudo-retirement with a role it would take others decades of nonstop work to even approach. He and Freddie blend together; his eyes betray nothing but that primal, weary force barreling every which way. Both Hoffman and Phoenix shake the screen with the force of their performances.
“The Master” invites a peek into the human soul and seems to originate with the soul. It is not a hard watch, though it’s certainly intense; it demands we recognize the individual behind its extremes, or at least understand somewhere in there that the individual exists. If it sounds intimidating, I understand. There’s nothing more shocking than staring a person in the eyes until we can see beyond, then within.