Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Freddie Quell), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Lancaster Dodd), Amy Adams (Peggy Dodd), Jesse Plemons (Val Dodd), Ambyr Childers (Elizabeth Dodd), Rami Malek (Clark), Laura Dern (Helen Sullivan), Madisen Beaty (Doris Solstad), Amy Ferguson (Martha the Salesgirl), Christopher Evan Welch (John More).
There have been a lot of movies about the post WWII world of returning servicemen – from something like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) which is about the trouble of adjusting to normal day-to-day life, and there have been many film noirs, about men not being able to leave the violence behind them, and getting sucked back into it. The Master is not quite like either of those films – and its starts with it’s with protagonist – Freddie Quell. When we first see him, he’s on a beach with his fellow servicemen partying – there is a lot of drinking, and sexual joking, but Freddie takes things farther than anyone else – miming sex with a woman that others have sculpted out of stand, before retreating – not to privacy, but off to the side, to masturbate. We next see him back aboard his boat – and as the end of the war is announced, he starts pouring his homemade drink concoction for everyone around him. After a stint at a VA hospital, not for any physical injury, but for a psychological one, he returns to America and gets a job working in a department store taking portraits. Even there, he cannot quite fit in – he hits on a salesgirl, then ignores her when he gets her alone (he actually falls asleep) – and gets himself fired by attacking a customer. He starts working as a migrant worker, at harvest time, and once again his weird drink concoctions get him into trouble. He runs away again – like he has done repeatedly throughout his life – and ends up on a boat. The boat is being skipped by Lancaster Dodd – who describes himself nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher. They are going on a long trip – and the two men bond, somewhat. For Freddie, Lancaster is a man who seems supremely confident – who has all the answers, while Freddie has none. For Lancaster, Freddie is a fascinating enigma – a man who seems to be pure id, who does precisely what he wants whenever he wants to do it. Freddie is an animal – and he may be miserable – but he’s also kind of free.
Before The Master came out, there was a lot of press about it being the scientology movie – where Dodd was based on that churches controversial founder L. Ron Hubbard. That is true to a certain extent – the religion that Dodd has founded is clearly based on that church – but it’s much more than just a hit job on a cult. Anderson is a director who never really judges his characters – he allowed the sex and drugs in Boogie Nights to be fun, and the downfall is not really because of either of those things – and I don’t think he truly judges Dodd either. In an earlier scene when Dodd is being questioned by an outsider – which is one of only two times he loses his temper (he does it again late in the film, when a long-time supporter questions him) – Dodd actually has a point. The man is questioning him, but doesn’t really want Dodd to answer the questions – he just wants to attack Dodd, and point him out as a fraud. I think the movie is clear that he is in fact a fraud – his own son at one point say “he’s making this up as he goes along. You don’t see that?” – but I don’t think Anderson really cares that Dodd is making it up. Like all religions, does it really matter if it’s true, as long as it helps?
Freddie is the one character who comes into Dodd’s orbit that Dodd cannot control, but he cannot dismiss. Everyone else bows down to Dodd, but Freddie doesn’t – he pushes back against Dodd, even as he tries to learn from him. Freddie is an ambiguous character – what precisely has happened to him. As played by Joaquin Phoenix, he is all right angles, strutting, sexuality and vulgarity. But he is searching for something, and for a while he thinks Dodd has what he’s looking for.
Dodd is a fascinating character in his own right. At first, I think he sees Freddie as a challenge – another “animal” that he wants to convert. In the several “processing” scenes, Dodd pushes the buttons on Freddie, tries to force him into something deeper than Freddie is willing, or perhaps capable, of going. He seems completely confident and in control – but as the movie goes along, it becomes clear that while he is the “master”, he isn’t fully in control. That would be his wife (Amy Adams), who controls Dodd as he controls everyone else. The one area she cannot control is Freddie – because Dodd will not let him go.
The Master is a fascinating, and an ambiguous film. I know some were frustrated with the film when it came out – Roger Ebert said that the film keep moving away from him, and every time he thought he had a grasp on it, he closed his hand on air. He initially gave the film a negative review, but then at the end of the year, he put the film on his list of runners-up for best of the year – with no explanation. That, oddly, makes sense to me. It is a film that sticks with you, that grows in your mind as you watch, re-watch it, and think about it. There are many ways you can take it – right up to the end of the movie; it seems to be suggesting new things to the audience.
It is also a great film on a technical level. Shot on 70MM film, this is one of the most distinctive visual films in recent years – the use of color is overwhelming. The unbreaking camera shots – that doesn’t quite move as much previous Anderson films. The film is really about the connection between the two main characters – who frustrated and fascinate each other. The two actors, Phoenix and Hoffman, are equally brilliant, but approach their roles in completely different ways – there scenes together are like watching two different acting styles coming together in a fascinating way. They are the two of the best performances in recent memory.
Like every other film Anderson has made, it is maturation from the previous film. If there was a problem with There Will Be Blood was that Paul Dano’s Eli Sunday was never a match for Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview – I think to a certain extent, that was by design, but it left the finale never in doubt. The final scene between the two characters in this movie is similar to the one in There Will Be Blood – but it doesn’t have the overtly violent bombast of There Will Be Blood, which was cathartic. There is no catharsis here – again by design – and that just makes the film even deeper, more fascinating and ambiguous. It is another masterpiece by Anderson.