Review: The Master


When I think of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, I usually think of them in terms of velocity. There’s a certain kind of drive to them, the movies hurtling toward moments that express frailty and loneliness. There are set pieces (e.g., the “God Only Knows” bit from Boogie Nights, the “Wise Up” scene from Magnolia, the silhouette in Punch Drunk Love, the derrick in There Will Be Blood) that eventually add up to the final scene of the film, which is definitive punctuation, a period, to Anderson’s winding sentence.

The Master is a different kind of film. It’s more alienating and demanding of the audience than anything Anderson’s done. There are incredible performances, especially from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but the velocity is diffused since the film isn’t driven by plot. What the film offers instead of velocity is intensity; it’s like watching mood swings connected by events rather than a traditional story structure. The film has an odd shape as a result.

I didn’t know what to think of The Master when I first left the theater. The end is less like a period and more like a stain or an inkblot. The whole film is kind of like that since its final note feels so unresolved. But there are fascinating things you can find in a splatter of ink.

The Master
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Release Date: September 14th, 2012 (New York and Los Angeles); September 21st, 2012 (expanded release)
Rating: R

The Master follows Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a psychologically wrecked Navy veteran who re-enters civilian life in 1950 as a lost drunk. Our first glimpse of Freddie is the second shot of the film. We only see his eyes and his brow, and both have a deranged concern in them. Already we can tell Freddie isn’t right in the head, and then we see just how bad it is. He’s violent, he’s sadistic, and he’s also horny as hell in a creepy way. Anderson assembles a few other faces that communicate a damaged mind for the early part of the film — long stares, vacant eyes, a certain twitch of eyelid. Jonny Greenwood’s score helps get the mania across as well, with wonky oboes, freak out strings, and even some anxious percussion that recalls a subdued version of “Convergence” from Bodysong and There Will Be Blood.

But so much of what makes Freddie compelling is Phoenix’s performance. One side of his face looks pinched as if he’s about to aim through an invisible gun sight. His body’s bent up like his mind. He’s hunched over, hands at hips and elbows jutted out — Freddie Quell: the child of Popeye, a question mark, and a coat hanger. Oscar buzz is obvious for a performance like this. Maybe it wasn’t that difficult a transformation given Phoenix’s crazed year as a rapper for I’m Still Here. Perhaps more telling: when he first saw a rough cut of the film without the soundtrack, Phoenix thought The Master was a comedy. Freddie thinks all the mayhem he’s doing is amusing as well.

In a stupor, Freddie winds up in the life of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a charismatic flimflammer who’s the head of a cult known as The Cause. A lot’s been made about Dodd being an analog for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, but that doesn’t paint a full picture of the character. Hoffman plays the role more like Orson Welles. He’s got the delivery, the gravitas, that sheer flair of Welles, who was a far more eloquent trickster than Hubbard. There’s even a musical number that reminded me just a little of the “Charlie Kane” song from Citizen Kane. Dodd decides to take in Freddie and tame the savage drunk by way of The Cause.

This relationship between Freddie and Dodd is the heart of The Master, and like an inkblot, there are different ways to read it. Dodd could just be a conman and Freddie his mark, but they have an odd affection for each other. There’s the obvious father/son possibility, or even an older brother/younger brother. Dodd sometimes treats Freddie like a stray dog, which is underscored by the way he scolds him for bad behavior. It’s just short of yelling “Bad boy” with a rolled-up newspaper in his fist. Since Dodd gets called “master” a lot and psychologically tortures Freddie as part of treatment, there’s some BDSM in there. On the benign side, Freddie could be the Eliza Doolitle to Dodd’s Henry Higgins. There’s also a hint of love between them that may or may not be sexual. It’s two opposing force with multitudes between them, whatever they are.

The two characters are constantly playing with levels of intensity, and they’re great foils for each other. Freddie is pure animal urge, all appetite. He just wants to get drunk, screw, and get drunk (and then screw if he isn’t sleeping). What Dodd offers is a chance of getting Freddie civilized and, more importantly, making Freddie feel like he belongs. Dodd is the only person who seems to even like Freddie in the entire film. He defends him, he protects him, and he expresses a genuine concern about his poor little stray.

The Cause may be a bunk religion and it may be dangerous, but what if it’s the only kind of salvation for a lost soul? Like any religion followed close enough, The Cause gives meaning to a life that may be lacking, or a rudder and sail to someone who feels adrift. That’s why the followers are so ardent about The Cause, like Peggy, Lancaster’s wife, played by Amy Adams. This is Adams’s best performance of her career, and she does it with the zeal of a true believer. She’s devout and prim for much of the film, but she has fiery moments, like when she vents her frustrations about The Cause being questioned. Anderson crafts her explosion nicely.

Basing The Cause on Scientology allows for some intense exploration of Freddie’s past. There’s an incredible set piece in which Freddie is processed for the first time, a practice similar to auditing in Scientology. Dodd breaks Freddie down and builds him up just through a series of questions. Repetition, volume, speed, variation in wording — every shift becomes a thing of drama. It’s pure dynamite, one of several scenes that made me lean forward in my seat as I watched. But it’s more than just a convenient bit of exposition. It’s a showcase for Phoenix and Hoffman, sure, and it’s also an exploration of how people can try to make sense of those deep hurts in their past.

Like the relationship between Freddie and Dodd, The Master isn’t so definitive about its feelings on The Cause. It’s a cult, no doubt, and Dodd is a charlatan who’s making the religion up as he goes along, but there’s still ambivalence. I understand what Anderson meant when he said the movie wasn’t just about Scientology. There are scenes in the movie where The Cause is like a helpful fiction for people. Maybe any certainty is better than the unknown, and any family is better than none for the orphans and the mongrels.

The final third of The Master is where its odd shape becomes most apparent. There’s an expectation we all have about character arcs and plot points, act structures and story pyramids. I don’t think Anderson cared about any of that, or at least not in a traditional sense. The end of the film doesn’t give its audience a cue about what to feel, and none of the characters have a neat moment where they come to a realization and then change. If there’s a thesis to The Master, it’s buried or whispered. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ll admit, maybe I didn’t know what to feel at the end of The Master because so much of what comes before is draining. I wanted The Master to tell me how to feel, which is maybe fitting since the movie is so concerned with whether or not Freddie wants to be given direction or to make his own sloppy way through life.

Going back to Freddie and Dodd, I think Anderson was more interested in what the opposites had to say about human frailty and human nature, but he felt uncomfortable about providing definitive answers. You have this clash between animal nature and human nature, between a master and a slave, between fathers and sons, between salvation (even if it’s a fake one) and being lost on your own miserable terms. Greenwood’s score has some very regal compositions as well as these moments of paranoiac, improvised jazz. The film even takes place smack in the middle of the twentieth century — that brutal and glorious 100 years of human misery and human endeavor.

Even though I didn’t know what to think of The Master immediately afterwards, sleeping on it made me realize how much of the film lingers in my mind. It hooks something I can’t quite identify. This isn’t going to be a movie for everyone, and people are just going to flat out hate it because it undermines expectations of plot and character. Without the pattern of recognition, change, and self-actualization in a protagonist, you’re left watching characters be themselves the whole time at different levels of intensity. (Though like the processing scene, every shift in the performance becomes a potential for drama.) There’s something about the rough edges and unresolved shapes that makes me appreciate its boldness. The Master can be uncomfortable, it can be difficult, but it’s a film that kept me enthralled even when it kept me in the dark.

Maybe the end of The Master feels so unresolved because few dichotomies are successfully resolved in real life and few people change as drastically as convention demands. It’s all about exploring grey areas and odd shapes, and what’s an inkblot test in the end but a mirror image of a mess? What a fine mess Anderson has gotten us into.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.