Some Of Joaquin Phoenix's The Master Scenes Were Invented On The Spot

Ready for a (not really) piping-hot take? Joaquin Phoenix's work in "Joker" is not his best performance, even if that was the film he won his first acting Oscar for. It's not even his best work playing a loner who lives with his mother. That would be his turn as Joe, a traumatized military veteran-turned-mercenary who rescues trafficked girls in Lynne Ramsay's "You Never Were Really Here."

"The Master" is another film Phoenix was better in than "Joker." Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the 1950s-set 2012 drama centers on Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a traumatized World War II veteran who's struggling to readjust to civilian life when he joins a cult known as "The Cause," after befriending its leader, a larger-than-life figure named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The movie was partly inspired by L. Ron Hubbard's founding of the Church of Scientology in 1953, which is a topic unto itself. But as much as "The Master" works as a post-WWII fable about America, it's the peculiar, compelling relationship between Freddie and Lancaster that gives Anderson's perplexing period piece its beating heart.

Phoenix versus Hoffman

Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd's dynamic is a square peg. At times, Freddie is like a misbehaving son and Lancaster is his father, tut-tutting his conduct while secretly approving of it — like when Freddie beats up a skeptic after they publicly confront Lancaster about his teachings and accuse him of running a cult. At other times, they come across as brothers or tight-knit buddies, especially when they're drinking a type of moonshine Freddie makes out of citrus fruit, torpedo fuel, paint thinner, and other chemicals (a brew only he and Lancaster can stomach). Then there are the moments where they seem like star-crossed lovers, giving rise to a climactic scene where Lancaster passionately croons "On A Slow Boat to China" to Freddie while the latter cries.

In terms of their acting styles, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are on entirely different tracks in "The Master." Hoffman channels Orson Welles, carrying himself with a magisterial air that only vanishes when he's challenged by someone, causing him to go red in the face and sputter obscenities. Phoenix, on the other hand, very much draws from the James Dean school of vulnerability, shifting from 0 to 100 on the emotional speedometer in the blink of an eye. "They obviously took their cues from the script and kind of created something bigger and better than I ever could have written out," Anderson told the Los Angeles Times.

Phoenix would just 'start doing things'

"The Master" sets the tone for Joaquin Phoenix's performance, as well as the film itself, in its very first scene. After opening on a shot of churning water, which goes on to become a motif, the movie shows Freddie Quell collecting coconuts from a tree and chopping them up on a beach, in between watching his fellow sailors make a sandcastle shaped like a naked woman (whom he proceeds to have pretend sex with). "We just wanted to go to a beach and start doing things," Paul Thomas Anderson told the Los Angeles Times, revealing much of the sequence was made up by Phoenix right on the spot.

Phoenix invented other moments in the film, too, like in the scene where he and Lancaster Dodd are put in adjacent jail cells after Lancaster is arrested for operating a medical school without a license and Freddie attacks the arresting officers. In a fit of rage, Freddie bashes his head against the cell's bed and even smashes what was a real-life, historical porcelain toilet. In an interview with the New York Times, Phoenix admitted, "I didn't intend to break the thing. I didn't know that was possible."

One could reasonably criticize "The Master" for needing a little more structure, not unlike Freddie himself. Roger Ebert did just that in his review, arguing the movie is "fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air. It has rich material and isn't clear what it thinks about it." Good ol' Rog would later describe the film as "enigmatic, but far from boring,'" which I think more or less sums up my own feelings on Anderson's beguiling drama. That we're all here still talking about the artistic choices he, Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the rest of the movie's cast and crew made 10 years later just go to show "The Master" has an undeniable pull, much like Lancaster. What that says about us, I leave to you to ponder.