After years of waiting (and rumors about its storyline supposedly being inspired by the life and times of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard) Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth full-length film, The Master, is finally in wide release — bringing us to the conclusion of our Anderson watching series with one of the more widely anticipated (and hotly debated) movies of the year. How does it fit into his Oscar-nominated filmography? Let’s discuss.
Anderson has said he was inspired by a quote pointing out that people often gravitate to spiritual movements during postwar periods, and in very general surface terms, that’s what The Master is about — if you’ve read up on your Scientology, you can draw certain parallels between Hubbard and the movie’s cult-shepherding Master, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), but if you go in not knowing your Scientologists from your Moonies, you should still be able to recognize the pattern: When a society goes from a wartime environment where everything is at stake to the numbing conformity of peacetime, people tend to go searching for something to latch onto.
People like Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), the Pacific-stationed World War II soldier we meet in the movie’s opening frames. From our first glimpse of Freddie, we can tell he’s a troubled individual, and we survey the damage in a series of largely dialogue-free shots that paw over familiar ground for Anderson: Man using nature; man using man; man struggling gracelessly with sex, lust, and loneliness. We quickly learn that Freddie has a thirst for peculiar cocktails (in the first of many wince-inducing scenes, he celebrates the announcement of V-J Day by siphoning straight torpedo fuel for some improvised moonshine), as well as enough emotional turmoil to earn a PTSD diagnosis.
If you’ve read anything about The Master, you know this is a role Phoenix absolutely crushed, and it’s his prowling, jittery energy that really drives the action in the movie. He’s a feral presence, particularly in the opening act — he struggles to put on a happy face during a session with a VA psychologist, makes a vain, half-hearted attempt to fit into postwar society with a job as a department store photographer, and manages to make a mess out of a stint as a migrant farmworker, all the while giving off the raw, dark energy of a man who’s barely walking the line between volcanic self-loathing and animal self-preservation. It’s always fun to try and spot the seams when an actor tries to disappear into physical tics as pronounced as Phoenix’s here, but he leaves nothing behind.
Anderson has also said that portions of The Master‘s screenplay were taken from unused scenes for There Will Be Blood, and that makes sense; you can detect a certain whiff of that movie’s dynamic here, once Freddie crosses paths with Dodd. But unlike Blood‘s Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday, Freddie and Dodd aren’t opposites, or even really enemies; although it’s still very much a struggle for power, their relationship is a lot more complicated, with enough love and heartbreak for a dozen romantic dramas.
Dodd initially appears to be the one in command — and the key to a safe, happy future for our anguished drifter — but after our first few moments in his presence, we start getting hints that behind his self-made sect’s glowing façade (and his own charismatic persona) lurks a different kind of darkness, as well as another power struggle between the members of Dodd’s family (led by his quietly terrifying wife Peggy, played to steely perfection by Amy Adams). Fittingly for a guy with a fondness for borderline poisonous hooch, Freddie proves a volatile addition to the mix — not only because his presence aggravates the tension, but because he gives off an unpredictably violent energy that’s always threatening to erupt.
It’s a story ripe with potential, and one that finds Anderson delivering some of his most beautifully composed shots. From a directorial standpoint, The Master really is the work of a master; he’s firmly in control here, spooning out a visual feast that includes a number of familiar ingredients (he still likes framing shots with missing information, and he’s really in love with putting his characters in the middle of hallways, ramps, doorways, trails — you name it) while markedly increasing his use of close-ups, as well as the sense of detached stasis that pervaded There Will Be Blood. Looming over it all, and adding to the general sense of unease, is Blood composer Jonny Greenwood’s score, which tells its own story with sweeping, sometimes discordant movements.
As with any Anderson picture, the question of What It All Means looms large over every frame, and The Master has already generated plenty of heated discussion. There are critics who see it as a grand statement on the search for meaning in modern consumer-driven American culture, there are those who interpret it as a homoerotic love story, and there are those who think it’s all just a bunch of thinly scripted hooey. As Roger Ebert put it, “The Master is fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.”
Personally, I started off in the first camp, but as the movie wore on, I found myself edging into the third. It’s certainly Anderson’s chilliest movie; it sweeps you up while you’re watching, but it always keeps you at a distance, so while you’re trying to untangle its themes later on — themes that Anderson seems to make a point out of refusing to fully address — it’s easy to wonder what the point of the whole thing really is. The Master lingers, but not in a particularly enjoyable way.
It can be argued that it’s unfair to expect high art from a film, and Anderson himself insists that his movies are the stories of people, not themes or ideas — which is certainly more than fair. But with The Master, Anderson the screenwriter fails Anderson the director — the characters are just sketches and their actions are inscrutable, so if they aren’t being used to tell a broader story, then they don’t really serve any purpose at all. Sometimes it feels like we’re seeing half a movie; the effect is unpleasant, unmooring.
But on the other hand, it’s hard to look at The Master in the context of modern American cinema and come away judging it too harshly. As frustrating as its tendency to elide can be, it’s still a film that refuses to talk down to its audience. (It may accomplish that by refusing to speak to its audience at all, but still.) It’s beautiful in an era when true cinematography is hard to find, it’s deeply ambiguous in a studio system that prizes the lowest common denominator, and it contains some of the most powerful acting you’re liable to see all year. If it’s a failure for Anderson, maybe it’s still a victory for filmgoers who want to be treated like adults — who want to consider and discuss what they’ve seen over a period of days and weeks, instead of forgetting the whole thing before they’re even out of the theater parking lot.
On those terms, I appreciated The Master, and I’m glad Anderson is out there fighting the good fight, proving mainstream audiences still want something more than mindless entertainment — but I wouldn’t watch it again, despite the prevailing notion that it’s a film that needs to be seen two or three times to truly appreciate. At one point in the movie, there’s an exchange that goes as follows:
“I don’t understand it.”
“I don’t either — that’s why we’re here.”
That about sums up the whole experience for me — and fittingly, as I walked out of the theater, Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” was playing on the PA system. I had to laugh; for film fans, The Master might be the biggest Rickroll of the year.
Monday: Hard Eight
Tuesday: Boogie Nights
Thursday: Punch-Drunk Love
Friday: There Will Be Blood
Monday: The Master