Release date: November 16th, 2012
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
One of the problems with trying to promote the genius of Paul Thomas Anderson is that you can rarely find a satisfying centre between a succinct and sufficient synopsis. To call Magnolia a ‘surreal day-in-the-life ensemble drama’, or There Will Be Blood a ‘character study of a power-hungry oil prospector’, however accurate, feels like you are underselling their qualities; to fully explain them could require several essays. The Master seems to deliberately exercise this, its perceived identity as a fictionalised portrayal of Scientology’s roots not even beginning to scratch the surface of the film’s psychological study of two polar opposites of society sharing an incredibly close bond through notions of spiritual healing and devotion to an ideal.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a licentious, alcoholic World War II veteran that brews moonshine with paint thinner and has seemingly random violent episodes. On one binge he crashes the boat party of writer and leader of ‘The Cause’ Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) celebrating his daughter’s marriage, and causes some trouble only for Dodd to allow him to stay, out of a mysterious fascination and because he’s become quite taken with his home-made brew. The Cause is Dodd’s philosophy regarding the communication with your past lives through a form of hypnosis in order to heal yourself of past failures, though some question the singular vision of his philosophy, while others mock his claims that the world is a trillion years old, or that the Cause can cure leukemia (“some forms of leukemia,” Dodd asserts). Freddie becomes Dodd’s “guinea pig and protégé” and reacts violently to anybody’s criticism of his master, but grows more and more unsure as the treatments fail to bring about any positive change in himself.
For the majority of The Master, Freddie assumes a subservient position to Dodd. He is drawn towards Dodd, a very captivating man, by his acceptance and understanding of Freddie’s mental issues, and the notion that he can cure them. However, psychologically the men are nearer equals by the end: though he is a scoundrel, Freddie is never anything but genuinely himself, while the vain Dodd is forever striving to make himself appear impressive. The early scene where Dodd takes Freddie through the steps of “processing” has Dodd repeat the question about whether Freddie cares about what others think of him when Freddie replies in the negative; at first it seems like Dodd is trying to make him recognise this as one of his failures, but in the context of the later scenes could be seen as Dodd’s inability to comprehend any rational being that does not care about what impression they make. Dodd often calls Freddie an animal for his violent and unhinged antics, after stating that “man is not an animal”; he later remarks that every human being serves a master in one way or another. When a loyal Cause member questions a change to his vision in his new book, Dodd lashes out at her criticism. He cannot accept anyone person he cannot understand and influence, and therefore Freddie becomes his ultimate frustration – a man who, not through lack of trying, serves no master but his own desires. Freddie, in essence, is beyond his power.
The two lead performances from Phoenix and Hoffman are truly incredible, Phoenix inhabiting Quell’s unhinged slouch like it was his own (comparisons to his own meltdown-or-was-it have been plentiful) and Hoffman exudes the spirit of Charles Foster Kane with a charisma he’s not been afforded in any prior Anderson outing. Amy Adams is terrific as Dodd’s wife Mary, a role that could easily have been one-dimensional, but instead she exudes an intelligence and authority, sometimes even over Dodd, that keeps the audience listening to her. The film could so easily have failed with three leading characters of such distorted beliefs and behaviours, but the performances compel you to follow them, much like the often-detestable Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Perhaps the film tunes its audience to these beliefs; any antagonistic presence is usually met by acts of violence, such as the dissenting “pig fuck” at a party, or the police who arrest Dodd.
This removal from rational behaviours also provides a lot of humour – and it is, in parts, a very funny film. I found it comparable to this year’s Carnage, its comedy stemming not from any character’s particular attempt to be funny, but just the spectacle of these grotesque individuals and their absurd behaviour. In one scene, Dodd tasks Freddie to walk back and forth between a wall and a window, describing each differently with every stop, as a house full of guests watches on silently. In another, Freddie (or Dodd? Or Mary? It’s never revealed explicitly) imagines all the women at a party naked while Dodd dances around them. Sex is a major theme of the film – aside from the absurd humour of the aforementioned scene or Freddie humping a sand figure of a woman, there is a certain power granted to sex in the narrative context. If Freddie had no human master, his sexual desire was certainly a master in of itself; the very last shot sees him clutching the sand-lady, as if she is comforting him. Elsewhere, Mary makes demands of Dodd while pleasuring him most vigorously. Dodd’s dominance over Freddie is treated more like a pet and his owner, with Dodd often calling Freddie “good boy” or “naughty boy” and rolling around playfully on the grass at one point. Natural dominance, it seems, is usurped by sexual freedom.
I think there is more than enough to analyse about the film’s narrative and characterisation to focus a review entirely on them, but it’d be a sin to pass over the cinematography that makes The Master Anderson’s best looking film, in a career of great-looking films. It’s at its most luminous during scenes of the Cause in action, such as the middle period in Philadelphia where Freddie is put to his tasks by Dodd. Anderson employs many, many close-ups in scenes, and the crispness of every shot lets you see every nuanced twitch in glorious presentation. The director’s love of the long tracking shot remains, with an early scene of a department store model wandering from customer to customer a particular delight.
It’s taken me a day or so to fully process (ha!) my experience, and in that time I’ve reasoned with myself that The Master is quite magnificent. I’ve compared it to Christopher Nolan’s Inception to a number of people – not in any affinity of visual bombast, but in the sense that a literal interpretation can make for a perfectly acceptable film. However, there is a depth to both these films that a little thought can reveal, and in the smallest of shifts the film can be about imagination, emotional trauma and the human condition – not to mention the fact both may take place mostly in their protagonists’ imaginations. The Master‘s emphasis on exploring the psyche of its characters over any conventional narrative will surely alienate a passive audience (more so than any of his previous works) but those willing to open their minds to it will find it a very satisfying experience. Though they may not realise it until much later.