Polished Performances


Actor: Joaquin Phoenix
Character: Freddie Quell
Film: The Master
By the time Joaquin Phoenix worked with Paul Thomas Anderson, he had already established himself as an impressive talent and had two Oscar nominations behind him for Gladiator and Walk The Line. As good as these performances are, though, they don’t come close to his work as Freddie Quell in Anderson’s sublime but divisive The Master.

Freddie is a violent, inarticulate loner and emotionally damaged World War II veteran who has a raging labido and a talent for brewing moonshine. Both his oversexed behaviour and alcoholism ultimately define his character and Phoenix captures his untamed animalism with unnerving precision. It’s a wild and extraordinary transformation from Phoenix who channels such an intensity that he makes you feel uncomfortable just watching him. – (Alongside the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, the interrogation scene is proof of Phoenix’s ability and can be read and viewed in my Classic Scenes collection here).

Freddie Quell is a man who’s crawling in his own skin and gives the impression that he harbours dark secrets in his struggle with post-traumatic stress and his adjustment to a post-war society. His body language alone is very expressive as he stoops, contorts and grimaces throughout every interaction.

In order to achieve the effect of clenching his mouth and talking out of one side, Phoenix had his dentist attach metal plates to his teeth with rubber bands to hold them shut. He eventually removed the rubber bands, though, as they weren’t strong enough but the metal plates – complete with screws that slightly cut up the inside of his cheek – were enough of a constant reminder that it allowed him to play this aspect of the character. Phoenix also dropped to 127 pounds to achieve an emaciated appearance which further adds to the inner struggle of Freddie.

It’s a raw and visceral performance that Phoenix entirely disappears into and it’s not only a worthy addition to my Polished Performances but it’s one of the very best screen performances I’ve ever witnessed.

Oscars? – Phoenix received his third Oscar nomination for this but he was up against very strong opposition in critics’ favourite Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln. Day-Lewis prevailed in the end but Phoenix didn’t do his chances any favours when he described the Oscar campaign as “utter bullshit” which he wanted no part of. That aside, his performance still strongly resonates.

(To see my other choice performances head back here)

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36 Responses to “Polished Performances”

  1. Still have not seen this one. Should rectify that, and soon. Thanks, Mark.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Master is one those films that has split audiences, Michael, but I’ve seen it three times now and every time it just gets better. It’s a masterpiece and with every viewing it edges closer to making my personal Top 10.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Joaquin Phoenix is such a unicorn. No one acts like him, no one acts like him off-set, and he’s really in elite company when it comes to the kinds of roles he takes on. He’s gotta be one of my top 5 favorites. I gotta see this performance of his.

    Liked by 1 person

    • He’s a top 5 favourite and you haven’t seen him as Freddie Quell? Holy shit, man!! You have an absolute treat awaiting you, sir.

      I can’t guarantee you’ll like the film (although I love it) but there’s no denying Phoenix’s performance. His work in The Master ranks in my top 3, all time, favourite performances. (I won’t tell you what the other two are yet as they’ve yet to feature) 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah I know. I think the amount of negative press that swirled around it scared me away, but it shouldn’t have. Not when its got Phoenix, PSH and PTA attached. I’ll remedy this soon enough though!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Fuck the negative press, man. The Master, like Inherent Vice after it, was judged far too soon. It’s a film that you need to let soak in and then watch again. It’s incredible. I’d go as far to say it’s PTA’s best film. It’s PSH’s best performance and it’s, undoubtedly, JP’s best performance.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent review, Mark. You’re right, really good performance and such a contrast to say, Her. So good in fact that I was so uncomfortable that I didn’t fully enjoy this movie. I spent a lot the time cringing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cheers Ashley! Your comment perfectly sums up Phoenix’s work. It’s so excruciating watching how uncomfortable his character is. Personally, I loved the film but it was hard to watch at times. And your spot on, Phoenix couldn’t be further from his role in Her. Two superb peices of work from him that came back-to-back. Not to mention him making it three in a row with his stoner from Inherent Vice. He’s been on scintillating form over the last few years.

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  4. You know how much I love PTA and Phoenix and I also concur that this is his best performance. With this and his roles in her and Inherent Vice, I gotta say Phoenix is the most compelling actor working today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Phoenix has certainly caught my attention over the last few years, Charles. I was always an admirer but his recent work has taken him to a whole new level. As Freddie Quell he’s absolutely incredible. It’s one of my all time favourite performances from any actor and the more I watch The Master, the more it gets closer to becoming included in my personal Top 10 favourite films.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I love just about every PTA movie. Magnolia’s my personal favorite and I think that may be a top 10 movie for me, but The Master’s definitely up there.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Definitely one of my favourite directors. Magnolia is a fine, fine film for sure but The Master and Boogie Nights are his best in my opinion.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’d put Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, and The Master as his top 3, but any director would kill to have a movie as good as his other ones. I’m interested in how his screenplay for the upcoming live-action Pinocchio will turn out. It seems unusual for Anderson to be working on a children’s film but I’m sure it will be well worth-seeing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Man, I had completely forgotten about Pinnochio. Is that still going ahead then? A strange choice indeed but anything with PTA is always worth a look.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I just looked it up and unfortunately it looks like PTA dropped out the project. Ron Howard’s now set to direct it, which isn’t a great sign. I would have really wanted to to have seen PTA’s interpretation.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Damn, man! Ron Howard? He’s a hack. I really struggle with Howard’s movies. Anyway, I suppose this should free up PTA for some other delight.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t dislike Howard (I’ve actually run into him before on the street), but he really is the ultimate middlebrow director.

        Anyway, as you said it leaves more time for PTA to make his own stuff. Saw his music video for Radiohead the other day and it was pretty solid.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I should check out more of his music videos. I’ve only seen his one with Fiona Apple covering The Beatles’ Across the Universe. It’s absolutely superb.

        Liked by 1 person

      • PTA did some music videos with Joanna Newsom from Inherent Vice last year. His aesthetics for those videos are similar to his recent movies: saturated aesthetics and multiple tracking shots. I also enjoyed the work he did with Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann (he filmed the latter’s one on the set of Magnolia).

        Liked by 1 person

      • Aah! I knew about Aimee Mann, of course, after the fabulous Magnolia soundtrack but had no idea about Newsom. I’ll do some digging, man. I’m hoping I can find most of these on YouTube!?

        Liked by 1 person

      • PTA did two with Newsom: Sapiokanikan and Divers.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Nice one, Charles. You certainly know your PTA. It’s always a pleasure to chat about this contemporary master. Already, I think Anderson will go down as one of the true greats of American cinema.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks man. It’s always good to talk about PTA. He’s already got one of the best filmographies in history, and he has already attained a legendary status in the cinema world.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely! He’s genuinely one of those filmmakers that has you excited when you hear of a new release. By the way, how did you find Inherent Vice?

        Liked by 1 person

      • I remember when I walked out the theater I felt a bit disappointed given my sky high expectations. But after some time and reading Pynchon’s book, I’m convinced it’s a masterpiece. I just bought the blu-ray the other day, and I’m hoping to see it again.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, I had similar thoughts first time round. I wasn’t too sure what I witnessed. I let it settle in and on a second viewing, I appreciated it much, much more. I reckon it’s has the same effect of The Master. The more you view it, the more you take from it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, Inherent Vice is a difficult movie to crack. When I saw it in theaters, half of the audience left the film midway.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s just it. I think it’s intentional that your not supposed to crack it all. I didn’t read Pynchon’s novel but PTA had admitted as much in interviews. I like how Edgar Wright summed it up… “Inherent Twice”.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I thoroughly enjoy Phoenix’s work, but haven’t seen this yet. I will have to rectify this. Great work, as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m a fan of Phoenix myself, Zoë and I’ve enjoyed a great deal of his work but nothing, I mean nothing, comes close to his performance in The Master. It’s one of the screen’s greatest for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Phoenix was excellent, here. Great breakdown of his work. I had no idea about the things he had his dentist do to prepare for the role. Yeesh! That said, I prefer his turn in Inherent Vice where he was just amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cheers Dell. This is not only my favourite Phoenix performance but it’s one of my all time favourite performances from any actor. I won’t split hairs with you on Inherent Vice, though. Phoenix was outstanding again in that. That’s another performance that will be included one day in this feature of mine. 🙂

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  7. That’s a strong year but it? Normally Phoenix should have walked away with it but Lewis is irresistible.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was a strong year for sure, Mark. To be fair, Day-Lewis always delivers great work but Phoenix really blew me away in this. It’s one of my all time favourite performances – I rate it that highly.

      Liked by 1 person

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