Joaquin Phoenix received his third Oscar nomination for portraying Freddie Quell in The Master.
It seems like Joaquin Phoenix is not a favorite actor of mine evidenced by my reviews of his previous two nominations. His work as Johnny Cash was indeedrather safe, although honestly so was the film's depiction of Cash. His work in the Master seems quite different as he goes out on a limb with this performance, something one might say he did in Gladiator, but I would disagree he was pretty safe there too. In Gladiator he mainly gave a derivative performance taking from the likes of Jay Robinson and Peter Ustinov as previous depictions of evil Roman Emperors. In the Master though Phoenix does not seem to be taking ques from any actors from the past, at least not in a obvious fashion, for his portrayal of Freddie Quell.
Something I think that perhaps contributes to the divisive nature of the film is the face that we do not see where Freddie comes from. We do not see him before the war we only see him after clearly spending far too time in battles that have left him a broken man. From the first scene we see him in he is already deeply troubled who is both an alcoholic and a sex addict. Phoenix's face certainly is fitting for such a man as his expression here is that of a man who has been through hell without having ever recovered from this trauma instead just overriding through his vices of drink and sexual thoughts. Phoenix importantly shows us the different states of Freddie early on when he still in the service.
In his scenes of drinking, fighting, and sand raping Phoenix shows Quell in a daze of nothing more than preoccupation of his time. Freddie does not seem to dwell though and seems sufficiently preoccupied with this behavior to allow him to ignore that which would trouble him otherwise. On the other hand when we witness a more sober less occupied Freddie such as when he is being given a psychiatric examination. Phoenix expresses well a sadness in the man, a dread that is uncompromising and seemingly unending. This is something that never seems to leave him either which set up perfectly the idea that Freddie is most certainly damaged goods. Phoenix shows something horrible definitely happened to Freddie in the war that he has never gotten over.
After he leaves the service we see Freddie attempting to become the proper civilian as the Navy wished him to become. As we witness him attempting to be a photographer in a department store there is perhaps an attempt at happiness here, yet a hollow one. Phoenix puts in his smile a strange disconcerting element that seems awkward and unhealthy to say the least. What comes into play here is the intensely physical nature of Phoenix's work here which he does go out on limb where Freddie makes awkward pains expressions often, and never knows quite how to sit or stand. This is a tremendous risk by Phoenix but it pays off properly by expressing the nature of his character beautifully. The nature of Freddie being a truly unsettled man who can never even relax in his own body.
We see the first one of Freddie's breakdown as he harasses a costumer who becomes unsettled by Freddie's behavior. Phoenix is excellent in this scene, the first of many showing Freddie loses even the slightest bounds that he is held by, as it is not that Freddie even seems to put effort into his erratic act. Instead Phoenix shows this as man who cannot simply contain himself in such a way and this is a strangely natural behavior. The violent act is something that is easy, and perhaps one of the few moments in which Freddie seems to be able to be entirely himself as his behavior obviously does not even have the slightest hint of being self contained.
This is quite a unique performance by Phoenix as a portrays an alcoholic in such a non traditional fashion that expresses well the state of this character. We never really know whether Freddie has been drinking or not or if he has been drinking how much or what material is held in his current concoction. Phoenix makes this merely the way Freddie is particularly early on. He never stops drinking it merely a function of his being and obviously that is another part of what leaves him as unpredictable as how he is. It is really something special here the fact that Phoenix makes his drinking just one of the many aspects of this man, and it is something that is almost just an integral part of him. He makes this sort of alcoholic natural, and it is amazing the way it does not overwhelm his portrayal by any means.
When Freddie loses his job as a photographer due to his breakdown, as well as a job as a farm worker due to one of his concoctions, and ends up accidentally on the ship that is being used by a strange cult called the Cause lead by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Phoenix plays these scenes well as Freddie drifts into this world that really has no idea the full extent of it. Phoenix makes Freddie a very casual viewer at first mostly there to enjoy the food, a place to be, and have another place to find liquid to make alcohol with. Freddie is just there for the ride at first but there with some interest enjoying the atmosphere and intrigued by Dodd in some way. Phoenix finds just the right path for Freddie here as he is still is only drifting here but leaves the proper indications that he is interested enough to stay for more.
He does indeed stay for more as Dodd decides to experiment on Freddie by having him undergo Dodd's "therapeutic" technique known as processing. This scene is incredible for Phoenix's performance as Dodd forces the truth of Freddie out in the opening. At first Phoenix shows Freddie basically just joking around basically dodging any actually questions about himself staying very much as the drifter, but as Dodd pressures Freddie for me the past of the drifter comes. Phoenix makes Freddie a surprisingly heartbreaking character here as he lets loose the nature of what makes Freddie the broken man he is. The sorrow he releases when he verbalizes his lost love, as well as the other problems of his life. Phoenix is extremely moving showing the core of this man showing exactly how pained Freddie really is as well as allowing us to see the real human behind this erratic drifter.
After his processing Freddie seems to become more involved with the idea of the Cause, even though Phoenix is careful keep this very much in line with how Freddie is. It is a strange investment that he takes with them as he seems heartily devoted at times, without even seeming to understand what exactly they stand for. Such as he shows feigning interest, even bemusement at some of what Dodd is saying, he neither seems to take his words to heart, nor does he seem to forget them entirely. At the same time though when someone questions the Cause and Dodd Freddie is the first to jump to action and defend the Cause by violently beating the man who questioned it. This is perfectly fitting for Freddie as he is such a broken messy man that he can't even become part of a cult in the right fashion.
Phoenix sets up the tacit involvement well, and due to this it is easy to see that he breaks away from the cult once again with an ease of only hearing some less than confidant words form Dodd's son about the Cause as well as falling into another violent breakdown due to the police. Phoenix makes Freddie such a shaky man no matter what that he can fall from this conditioning so quickly, and become his animal like self once again through the simplest cause. When in prison Phoenix makes Freddie truly a caged animal that once again lets loose of all the violent tendencies he too holds back at other times. Once again though Dodd manages to pull Freddie back into his world through simply saying he is friend, and Phoenix makes this believable as Fredde is a man straining to hold onto something.
Dodd decides to further his experiment on Freddie and there is a series of scenes in which to show the endless attempts to put Freddie into the Cause. These are basically a series of physiological torture, and in away physical torture as well. Phoenix is masterful in these series of scenes as he brilliantly builds Freddie to the point of indoctrination. He excellent in finding the truth of these scenes, and bringing to life the way they do slowly affect Freddie. He never compromises the nature of Freddie importantly showing him to still be the erratic man he should be, but slowly showing him becoming almost entranced by the training to somehow find an odd peace with himself. His face at the end of the set of scenes as it expresses some strange bliss in the man brought on by this odd conditioning.
Freddie seems to continue with his bliss of a man who has found some strange happiness that does not last long though, and Phoenix does well in clearly establishing this as not a deep happiness but more of a temporary state. It does not take much for him to lose it only seeing the slightest hesitation in Dodd, which Phoenix does brilliantly. The smallest reaction in Hoffman's performance causes the smallest reaction in Phoenix's performance that indicates the instant loss of this state. Freddie delves once again into a form of himself when he violently attacks another man who question Dodd's writing. Phoenix does show a difference he as Freddie seems to have a moment of clarity as he examines himself, and we can see that The Cause is only another place from Freddie to drift.
The last scenes of his performance certainly are up to interpretation which is the right way to end on this character of Freddie. To have a happy ending for this man, who very well could be just insane, would be quite wrong for him. Phoenix though still creates a poignant image of this man at the end of the film as we see Freddie still a man without a place, or a Master. The rage has left him, as has the anxiety, but the sadness of him has not. The sadness now though has changed and Phoenix beautifully shows there some greater understanding within himself that allows him to reject Dodd last attempt with a sad resignation that there is nothing more for Freddie there. This is not the cleanest end to a character perhaps but perfectly fitting for Freddie. This is a brilliant performance that goes off on one note and succeeds in creating a vivid portrayal of this man. His connection with Hoffman in this film is astonishing the way they play off each is outstanding to the point, as I said earlier, that they connect with even the most subtle of reactions. This is a tremendous work from Joaquin Phoenix that never looks back, and makes a truly lasting impression.