Paul Thomas Anderson, Joaquin Phoenix and "The Master"

(R) ★★★★½

If you're ready to encounter a ticking time bomb on-screen then get ready for Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson's flawed but brilliant The Master. No review can prepare you for what Phoenix does on screen in this movie. It is not only the best acting you will see all year but also a performance that will be talked about for ages. Not to take anything away from Philip Seymour Hoffman as a Ron L Hubbard-like biblical propagandist, Hoffman is brilliant too and will likely get his fourth Oscar nomination as Dodd. Anderson doesn't just direct The Master, he infuses it with so much cinematic juice that your eyes will likely explode in sheer delight of its colors and shots. Sure some critics are already bitching that Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love) has made a film with no meaning and no direction but these same people are missing the point. The Master is episodic in nature, a shuffling of numerous, powerfully deliberate sequences -practically all taking place in Freddie Quell's head- that hit you hard when taken in as a whole. I came out of it both confused and affected.

Contrary to what many people are saying, this is not a film about Scientology. Even though Scientology does serve as a background, Anderson has slyly set up for us a character study involving Phoenix's Freddie Quell and his psychotic journey through hell. Every time Freddie is on screen you feel uncomfortable, an unpredictable character, a ticking time bomb waiting to explode at any moment. The anger and frustration that resides inside Quell is not healthy and severe medical attention is what he needs. He thinks he's found it in a man that is preaching a new gospel. Hoffman's Dodd is a well known scientists that has come up with his own religion, one that very much mirrors Scientology founder Ron L Hubbard's vision. Dodd sees in Quell a potential follower, a man knocked out by life and in need of a resurgence. A friendship develops and that is in fact the heart and soul of the film. Dodd and Quell need each other more than we are led to believe. They are first and foremost friends that are blatantly divided by their own beliefs. In one scene after the next we are only given glimpses of the bond that is developed between the two men.

Freddie's quirky mannerisms are memorable - a hunched posture, one eye widely opened more so than the other, a slurred speech from too much drinking and a broken walk. Freddie's alcoholism is severe. He has a drink almost every time we see him. Phoenix has created a character that will resonate with fans of cinema for years to come. The first 20 minutes of The Master focus on Freddie's failed attempts at life. His memorably preposterous stint with the navy is highlighted by a humping session with a sandwoman which leads to a jerk off session next to the beach. His job as family photographer at a retail store, which ends with him attacking a client nonsensically and losing his job. As a runaway in an undisclosed location filled with Asian workers which eventually leads to his own homemade moonshine poisoning a local old man and possibly killing him. Freddie being chased by the Asian workers, somehow getting away from them and eventually sneaking into a boat party that is populated by Dodd and his followers. The way I'm describing these events is the way Anderson presents them to us, in fragments - just like in There Will Be Blood's opening scenes, we are set up for a character study like no other and a man that is truly aggressive in nature.

The episodic nature of the film gives it the feel of a dream and much credit must go to cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., who will likely deserve every award that will come his way at year's end. Anderson loses track of his film once his vision shifts to England but no matter that section still remains a thoughtful, enigmatic piece of his deliberately dreamy puzzle. We are left with enough question sto wet our appetites for a second viewing. The Master's many powerful moments combine to make it a masterful whole. It is a testament to Anderson's brilliance as writer/ director that you forgive the flaws that come with his work. He is truly the best American director working today because there is so much going on in every frame and such carefully planned out thought to his shots.  So much happens in the film's 138 minutes that the mind can't grasp everything at once. The relationship formed between Quell and Dodd is one that will be dissected for years to come. They form an unlikely duo that is the heart and soul of the picture. What's truly remarkable about the therapy Dodd uses on Quell -such as questioning, feeling walls/windows, controlling anger- is that it actually works for a glimmering moment, much more than any of the army's tactics.

Phoenix has shown signs of brilliance in past roles -most notably in 2009's underrated Two Lovers- but here he really outdoes himself. If Daniel Day-Lewis' towering performance as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood left a shattering mark on cinema for decades to come, Phoenix's Freddie Quell will likely have the same lasting effect. Before The Master collapses in its final 10 minutes, there hasn't been anything better released in 2012. When it finishes there still hasn't been anything better in 2012. Its resonant images stay with you like a neverending wave at shore,  long after the lights have come up and the dust has settled. Here is an example of director and actor both at the peak of their powers making such powerful, relentless, united art that transcends anything that's come before it. Anderson's last 4 films have each been released 5 years apart, here's hoping we don't have to wait another 5 years for the master to release another one.