Some of the greatest masterpieces in art are works of awe-evoking beauty, constructed to technical perfection by a master at the peak of their abilities, but whose precise meaning is elusive. If it can’t be easily categorized, it just sticks in the brain, and is endlessly debated, sometimes for centuries. But is THE MASTER just such a masterpiece, or is it a fraud, with all the trappings of the real thing, but hollow at the core, as some suggest? Critics are divided. It does have an 86% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but many praise the acting and look of the film while complaining that it is inscrutable, or fails to pay off in a narrative sense. My own views are complicated, and they have evolved considerably as I’ve continued to think about the film every day since seeing it at TIFF.
One thing that most reviews have avoided, even those praising it, is getting deep into the meaning, of the film. But I think the legacy of THE MASTER is intertwined with what it is trying to say. So the first part of this review will be light on spoilers, but I’ll get more deeply into what I believe the meaning of the film to be in the second half.
The film opens with Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a sailor finishing his tour during the last days of WWII. Right off the bat he seems half-crazed. He builds a woman out of sand on the beach and starts humping it. Then he masturbates into the ocean, is seen lounging around on the ship, and taps a torpedo and starts drinking the “torpedo juice.” This isn’t the typical picture we see in movies of someone who has helped win a war. We never see Freddie doing substantial work -- he seems to be a free spirit, content to go wherever life takes him, pushing well past the boundaries of good taste, and up against the edge of antisocial behavior.
After the war, Freddie becomes a portrait photographer, albeit an alcoholic one who likes to have backroom sex with his coworkers. When he provokes a fight with a customer, he escapes to become a migrant worker in California, only to have to run again. Ultimately he stumbles onto a boat where he passes out, and wakes up to encounter Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), self-described commander, writer, philosopher and nuclear physicist, and his group of followers, known as “The Cause.” Dodd takes a liking to Freddie and his wild nature, particularly his penchant for mixing up impromptu hooch from whatever is at hand, including paint thinner.
The two become a codependent pair -- Freddie the one member of the flock who isn’t a sheep, and Dodd the father figure and guiding spirit who gives the drifting Freddie direction. Their relationship forms the core of the movie, which begins in earnest with an electric scene involving Dodd putting Freddie through “processing,” a series of questions designed to elicit an emotional response, involving trauma and, at times, past lives. While this is largely a two-character piece, we occasionally get a scene with Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams) in brief, but forceful appearances, and Dodd’s children, some of whom believe he’s a charlatan, even as they go along with his charade.
The thing that sets THE MASTER apart, despite all its flaws, are the jaw-dropping performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. This one-two combo is among the best pair of performances ever to appear on the big screen. It is a career-making performance by Joaquin Phoenix, his most immersive, and strangest. His Freddie is animalistic, twisted, explosive, and dangerous. His entire body is transformed from his posture, to his mumbled speech, to his arresting cackle. Meanwhile, his counterpart, Philip Seymour Hoffman, plays a charismatic leader, grating pedant, and ruthless manipulator. He’s seemingly in control, until he’s crossed, when he erupts with a scorching ferocity. His performance is equally impressive, even if we’ve seen glimpses that he was capable of it before (notably, his character in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE). And when the two actors share the screen, the fireworks will go down as some of the most memorable scenes in cinema history.
Acting of the highest caliber, particularly with such mesmerizing scenes, will be enough that THE MASTER will be remembered for a long time. But a collection of memorable scenes is not enough to make an all-time great film. This is where it stumbles. THE MASTER is repetitive and drawn-out. Some scenes seem to go nowhere, while other scenes that would seem vital are not to be found, notably, an ending. There is something like a narrative, as we see different scenes in the life of Freddie and Lancaster Dodd, as their relationship progresses only it fails to resolve into anything like an arc. It seems that Paul Thomas Anderson is taking a page from one of his heroes, Robert Altman, who eschewed neatly tied up narratives, or sometimes even a cohesive plot, in favor of a collection of scenes with strong acting.
And yet, Paul Thomas Anderson is no dummy. He’s positioned THE MASTER to be epic. It is epic in scope, spanning many years, epic in subject matter, the foundation of a religion, and epic in presentation, the first fiction feature shot in 70mm in 16 years. This has amped up the expectations of critics, and created a certain aura around the project. And rightly so, it is a stunningly beautiful film. This isn’t entirely due to the reduction in film grain --- when is the last time you noticed grain in the modern era? Shooting in 70 requires different lens and lighting choices as well, and it forces you to pay extra attention to every aspect of a shot from the composition down to set details. And even in terms of film playback, extra attention has been paid. PTA has been personally going around to some cities (Toronto is one of them -- I saw it at the TIFF Bell Lightbox 1), testing the 70mm presentation of his film. Finally, there is a psychological effect as well: a 70mm film is more than a movie, it’s a goddamn once-a-decade event.
So I don’t think PTA intended THE MASTER just to be an exercise in great acting in a thrown-together collection of scenes. There are themes in THE MASTER, for sure, but do they come together as a whole piece of work?
Aspects are loosely based on the founding of Scientology by L. Ron Hubbard. It was founded in the postwar era, with boats playing a key role, has a belief in reincarnation, claims that the universe as much older than is scientifically known, and has a questioning experience that is reminiscent of “processing” shown in the film. Even still, the film is no simple takedown of Scientology. In fact, it goes to great lengths to set up the parallels between Scientology and “the Cause,” but then is maddeningly silent about how a cult can make the transition to full-blown religion. Lancaster Dodd has a legion of devoted followers, yet we see very few of them, outside of a couple of scenes with Laura Dern. We never get a sense of why anyone (outside of Freddie, and he’s a special weirdo) would devote their lives to following Dodd. In fact, nearly every follower shown in any detail at some point becomes disillusioned with Dodd, and yet continues to hew to his mercurial strictures anyway.
Instead of the founding of a religion per se, Paul Thomas Anderson seems more interested in the dynamic between his two main characters. Ultimately that is all about how each fills a need in the other, and the mechanics of manipulation.
Some scenes, which seem puzzling at first, like Freddy improvising unholy tipples out of any chemicals at hand, are based on a certain reality, but are clearly meant to be symbolic. Freddy is “making it up as he goes along,” something said later about Lancaster Dodd. And his grog may induce short-term intoxication, but it is ultimately poisonous. This is just a physical representation of the ideological nonsense that Dodd is peddling.
One epiphany I had that only hit me a few days after seeing THE MASTER is that Freddie is basically a dog, and Dodd is, well, the master. The clues are there -- from the opening shots, Freddie is seen alternately lying in the sun and humping an inanimate object. He wanders onto the master’s boat like a stray. Freddie never quite understands or goes in for the intellectual underpinnings of the religion, but he’s fiercely loyal all the same. When the tenets of the religion are being explained, all he can think about is sex. When anyone attacks the master, Freddie defends him ferociously. When he’s caged he lashes out until he does himself physical harm. Dodd refers to Freddie as a “silly animal,” and claims that his followers are not animals. The master even trains Freddie with repetition, both by repeating the same commands over and over, and by making him do the same task over and over until he breaks. He even refuses to let him eat with the rest of the group until he complies. Freddie stays with the family as they move from place to place. There is even a scene where Freddie “runs away,” with the master calling after him.
Seen through this lens, THE MASTER is not just a simple ridiculing of scientology -- that would be too easy, and SOUTH PARK has done it better anyway. Instead it is a subtle and subversive indictment of all religion. What is religion than a series of rules governing how to act and interpret the world, brainwashed into our consciousness through repetition? It is manipulation through rewards and punishments until we accept a fanciful story that would not even pass the giggle test when examined in the sober light of day. It is a collective delusion that is at times recognized as such by the practitioners, until they force such thoughts away to stay in their in-group.
This criticism is never overt in THE MASTER, which is a brilliant move, because devout Americans would never accept it. If these techniques are tangentially attributed to a cult, it becomes possible to mock such a small tribe as being backward and utterly different than yourself.
Still, the relationship between Lancaster Dodd and Freddie is more complicated than dog and master. Some jackass is going to analyze this movie in a Freudian context. Freud was as much of a fraud as Lancaster Dodd. Still, I suppose it is possible PTA had some of those ideas in mind when he wrote it. It is true that Freddie is a lot like the id: instinctual, hedonistic, libidinous, chaotic. He even seems to have little concept of time, as demonstrated when he doesn’t realize how many years it’s been since he’s seen the girl he once wanted to marry. And Dodd is akin to the super-ego: controlling, judgmental, perfectionist, even spiritual. But who’s the ego? Amy Adams’ character, Peggy, is a pragmatist, but she’s barely in the movie enough to register. Was PTA saying that Freddie are two extreme versions of mental states that need each other to be whole?
Taking that idea a bit further, could Freddie and Dodd be two parts of L. Ron Hubbard? LRH was in the Navy, and was somewhat of a photographer, but here it is Freddie, not Dodd who has those traits. And Freddie and Dodd are complete opposites --- Freddie is all about sex and affairs, while Dodd is a family man who seems almost incapable of normal sex. Freddie is uncontrollable, while Dodd is the epitome of stifling control. Some of their scenes even play like an internal dialog, particularly one where they end up in a single shot in side-by-side jail cells. Freddie is caged fury, smashing his whole body against the bunk and stomping a toilet to pieces. Meanwhile, Dodd struggles to angrily maintain control. One bizarre scene even shows all the women in the thrall of Dodd naked, singing (but not reacting to the fact that they are naked), and seems to be something imagined by Freddie. And yet, it also seems real, because Dodd’s wife seems to react to it in a subsequent scene. But as fun as it would be to imagine PTA pulling a FIGHT CLUB here, I don’t think that’s what he literally intended.
Instead, I think metaphorically, these are two exaggerated aspects of all humans, who need each other to be complete. Dodd lusts for power, dominance, and control, and Freddie needs a direction to channel his urges. But who is in more desperate need? I wont give it away, but the film has an answer. It doesn’t end in any conventional way, with the teacher having learned from the student, or the mentor dying, and the student replacing him. Nor do the two annihilate each other in a blaze of glory. Instead THE MASTER just seems to run out of scenes. That is making a statement all by itself. The problem is, the ending does not, on first viewing, reinforce any of the themes so elaborately laid out in the rest of the two hour plus running time. It feels like a real missed opportunity, as if PTA could not figure out what, exactly he was trying to say.
THE MASTER is fascinating, complicated, and masterful. But at the same time it is infuriatingly flawed when it comes to delivering on an elaborately constructed setup. Almost all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are about an individual struggling to find control, and to find a family. Other favorite themes include manipulation, power, and exploitation. THE MASTER is all of these, writ large, in a gigantic, operatic fugue. And yet, at its core, it is both as manipulative as the master, and as wayward as Freddie. With the relentless repetition, distortion of reality, and construction of an epic, larger-than-life tale, Paul Thomas Anderson seems to be slyly commenting on the parallels between the manipulations inherent in being both a director and cult leader, between the cults that develop around films, and those that coalesce around religions. And yet, by not giving us the answers, he reveals that he too is making it up as he goes along. Is he a genius for pulling off such a huge following, or a fraud for doing it without all the answers? Well, I’m the other half of this partnership. I’ve worshiped you wholeheartedly for some time, Mr. Anderson. But right now, I’m done with your manipulations. I’m going to go have sex.