The Master (2012, Paul Thomas Anderson)


This, the sixth film by renegade writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, is one of the most uncompromising American movies to appear in the last decade; it’s an enveloping and visually sumptuous art on a grand scale. Shot in 70mm (the first major production in the format since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1996), The Master is overwhelming, as you’d expect, not to mention rather bizarre at times — but also strikingly human and moving. It’s no single-conflict story and it aims to keep its themes subtle enough to generate weeks of thought after its finale, but its narrative coheres, its real-world applications are biting, and more than anything it’s beautiful, aesthetically and otherwise.

Though I have yet to see his first two films, this marks the first time I’ve deeply connected with Anderson’s work [2020 note: I’ve since come around fully on There Will Be Blood], and not coincidentally the first time I felt his characters were entirely believable and that he didn’t attempt to shoehorn thematic meaning into a story that didn’t have or need it. At last it seems to me that he’s let go of our hands and given us truly free reign to uncover the inner lives of two (or perhaps three) extremely well-drawn characters, both of whom we come to know intimately, and how the collision of their worlds alters them. Each is a complete story unto itself, and because the film builds into disappointment and disillusionment rather than any climactic peak, what’s fascinating about The Master is how the short-lived involvement of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) in the cult of personality led by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) rattles both these deeply troubled men to their cores. In the end, The Master does say something about us and about twentieth century life, but it’s not something that can really be expressed verbally, much less something most Americans particularly want to hear — less instructive than a cry of despair, tempered by a miniscule volume of hope.

But I hate the idea of dispensing this sophisticated near-masterpiece with any kind of pared-down psychological or rational meaning, since the entire purpose of the film is the meaning we ourselves derive from it. It’s for this reason that I found it the most thought-provoking film or book I’d been exposed to for most of the year; coincidentally I’d been reading about the time period depicted in the film extensively for a time and to whatever extent I can know this, I think it’s not a small achievement that The Master feels as though it embodies that time and place, America in the postwar period, as well as any film made now possibly could. And I don’t simply mean in terms of authenticity and production design but in the all-encompassing idea of parallel societies, of drifting apart from an increasingly interconnected world, and of the cogs turning and putting so much of the culture of the next half-century into place. You can feel all that in this movie, like some Beat poet’s ramble, just big shadowy constructs being built, tracks being laid down, the sense of being caught in the limbo between two major acts of an evolving world.

Lancaster Dodd sees this nakedness of time, this blank slate, and seizes upon it. He is the future of our other lead, Freddie, except that he has found in his own desperation the thirst for control. Of course we learn that this charismatic speaker and drunken louse, plainly modeled on L. Ron Hubbard, is as much the manipulated as the manipulator, and that’s just the sense of control and structure, subservience, he longs for. He keeps drifter Freddie around for a time thanks to his monstrously prodigious command of the improvised cocktail. Dodd takes a sip of these things, freakishly melded with everything from photo finishing fluid to torpedo fuel, and drops the class with a wrinkled look of ecstasy and terror. “OH GOD,” he bellows. Then off he goes to work a crowd, to funnel pop-psych false epiphanies into a cultish religion called The Cause which, being a stand-in for Scientology, is both laughably silly and actively dangerous in its discouragement of medicine and conventional health. Dodd’s magnetic, but any outsider quickly understands that he’s making this garbage up extemporaneously — the way all religions start, of course — and it’s striking how quickly his defenses go up and fire out in all directions when this fact, a threat to his insulation, is pointed out.

Any outsider, by the way, except Freddie, a probably permanently brain-damaged PTSD victim whose world was shattered by his service in WWII before there was a word, of course, for PTSD. Beginning with the washing away of a promising and idyllic relationship early on and an inability to take any solid career track seriously, he is destined to wander through the rest of his life aimlessly. Extremely impressionable, unpredictable, easy to manipulate, all of which make him an easy target for Dodd, he rapidly becomes both the ideal subject for the Cause’s psychological meandering and the perfect big dumb ape to respond dogmatically and defensively, without hesitation, to Dodd’s silly ideas, becoming a sort of accidental heavy in the cult’s defense. When even he, in his cloudy state, begins to question his status in life and the way Dodd and his wife Peggy (unforgettably, career-changingly drawn by Amy Adams) reformulate their surrounding people like furniture, and finally escapes the destructive grip of it all, you can take it however you like. If you’re a pessimist, you suspect this simply means something about “opiate of the masses” whereby the boy will now drift into the dark night forever, possibly hurting others. If you’re an optimist, maybe the reformulation of Dodd’s dogged interview questions as dirty talk during a cowgirl fuck comes across as a witty triumph of the human spirit. If you’re a realist, maybe there’s something here as simple as: Freddie’s life may now be a perpetual unrooted nightmare but it’s a nightmare with no one else undeservedly in command of it. Even the worst life is better than life as part of a cult.

Probably because of the “pull” that Scientology members have within the Hollywood press, I can’t help but notice how much promotion of The Master, after the initial hype fell off, has ignored its subtext. One reasonable excuse for this is that the film is a character piece and isn’t directly “about” the Cause and the evil it has wrought, but in fact, the film has a far more scathing view of Scientology than I was led to believe. That’s with the caveat, however, that Anderson’s script is equally biting in its rejection of cults and religion at large, since its major critical points are less with the specific cachet given to the charismatic celebrity cameo in Scientology than to the damaging wrongness and manipulation at the center of any belief system. It’s fascinating for Anderson to have chosen not to explicitly put the outside world on display in this film, since it’s dealing with the horrors outside of this little psychological nook Freddie and Dodd find themselves in that generates the story in the first place. We see the reaction rather than the source, again and again, with the sole exception of Freddie’s romantic travails, which are approached with a kind of longing unseen elsewhere in the narrative. My thinking is it’s just too painful to consider the depth of what might really be at the source of his misery and damage.

The susceptibility of a broken man to the adoption of wacky views is nothing new in life or in cinema — is there any more succinct expression of this than the trip to the fortune teller in Bicycle Thieves? — but the vastness of Anderson’s treatment of the matter is something we haven’t necessarily seen before. As mentioned, I’m not sure the film is really as pessimistic as people are saying… but even if it is, that pessimism is tempered by playfulness and humor and a sense of awe-inspiring romance and beauty, a streak of humanism that works even if some find its baldness off-putting — this does all take place in a world of walking human dress catalogs cooing elegantly, perfect children coiffed perfectly for family photographs, pretty girls singing “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)” on swings, and an impromptu, direct serenade of one man by another. Thanks to all this hard-won completeness, the uncanny ability to see through a tale of madness and dread to find something else, we can liken this to classic Hollywood — that simultaneous sweep and intimacy is unmistakable, and usually impossible to duplicate — but even more, an even higher compliment: Stanley Kubrick. Of all directors, none ever gave his audience more credit or imagined his films as such a complete and complicated world with far more to explore and come to terms with than one can possibly digest on a first viewing. I didn’t buy Kubrick comparisons for There Will Be Blood, a good film that didn’t seem emotionally resonant to me at the time, and I couldn’t follow what Anderson was getting at in Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love… but now I’ll be returning to all three as well as finally seeing his other two films, because during this one viewing I’m working from, I got that Barry Lyndon or Eyes Wide Shut feeling of being impossibly touched and affected and not being able to articulate why for days afterward. That’s more like music than cinema, but highest cinematic art it still is.

When we brush away the themes of The Master, what we’re left with is a story like The Graduate or Midnight Cowboy — about the capacity and limitations of “freedom,” and about being led around by illusions, from one to another like stepping stones. One revelation of the great emptiness in one’s life drives one into the arms of another big deception. So a drunken mess with a clearly difficult past, a gullible and animalistic, impulsive and juvenile person is easy prey for the world. Like Dodd, though, Freddie seeks control over everything around him, one reason they each seem like a mutated manifestation of the other: the obedient participant and the obedient leader. Is Freddie’s final transformation a rejection of outside control? Have both characters lost every touchstone with a true reality apart from their carefully cultivated world? Is a wayward man the same as a doomed man? The Master asks hundreds of questions about this, about religion, about father-son dynamics, and about unrequited yearning for the past as the world keeps moving. Like most of Kubrick’s films, all of it is a question mark.

Anderson’s script is almost wholly free of fat despite its length; his visualization of the film is flawless, even enchanting. He crafts his three crucial characters without a false note, almost to a fault; it’s rather hard to watch Freddie at times. That brings us to the performances, led by three powerhouses that modern American cinema barely deserves. Joaquin Phoenix has been good before, but never this good; his violently driven and primal embodiment of Freddie is absolute, and a fearfully extreme thing to behold — yet I found his work less movie-like, more believable, than Daniel Day-Lewis’ (exemplary) lead in the director’s prior film, which was a more straightforward melodrama. Phoenix’s dead-eyed expressions and live-wire intensity are nothing short of haunting, while Hoffman offers up a more direct Halloween costume of both smirking showmanship and deer-in-the-headlights vulnerability. He’s Philip Seymour Hoffman and this is really par for the course for him, which in his case is a compliment. But Amy Adams, frankly, steals the movie, and not to its detriment — as Dodd’s steely-eyed, gleefully commanding wife, seemingly the true backbone of the Cause, she’s a firebomb of intensity whose talent for control really eclipses either of her counterparts. Jerking Lancaster off while whispering demands to him, tormenting Freddie in and out of traditional Cause testing grounds, and giving vent to the entire family’s doubts about his character, Adams comes to Peggy with an urgency and single-mindedness that make her power as palpable as the landscapes, deep waters, and spring greens of Anderson’s frame.

As in There Will Be Blood, Jonny Greenwood provides an unconventional and sort of harrowing music score, this time worlds beyond his prior work, as brave and innovative as Quincy Jones’ material in the ’60s, which reinvented movie music — after seeing such stodgily composed work in recent films like A Dangerous Method and Looper, perhaps we need that again. On top of that, Anderson really compensates for any problems with his pseudo-musical Magnolia here. This isn’t a musical at all, but you can read it as one; there are three numbers in it, one solo, one a duet, and one the best and craziest thing I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. Hoffman comes out parading around in one of his many gloriously flamboyant moments of reveling in his own power here and starts belting out “Go No More A-Rowing” with piano accompaniment. As a slanty-eyed Freddie watches, Hoffman is soon in command of a room full of nude women cavorting around like he’s master of ceremonies at a burlesque show. Freddie’s very drunk, as he almost perpetually is throughout the film. He might be hallucinating. But we’re not. We’re seeing a brilliant mainstream American filmmaker do something ballsy and genuinely new. It only feels like we’re hallucinating.

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