Enjoying Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master may, for many people, be a case of controlling expectations. This is a very different film than the director’s most recent and best known work, There Will Be Blood. That film was grand and sweeping, spanning vast amounts of time and tackling numerous psychological, economic, and historical issues.
The Master is a smaller film, a quiet and intimate character study with a much more streamlined thematic focus. That is not to say it is any less emotionally or philosophically complex – the film is built around several impossibly large questions about the human condition – but Anderson explores his ideas very differently this time around. This is a measured and meditative work, a largely observational piece that implies more than it provides, provokes more than it performs, and compels the viewer not with an overt and obvious hold, but a subtle and transfixing gaze. The film is not an immediately powerful experience, but a lingering cinematic time bomb, one that does not detonate in full until the curtain has closed and the viewer begins to reflect.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, a WWII veteran with severe post-traumatic stress and debilitating alcoholism. It is a stunningly powerful piece of acting, dirty, animalistic, and frighteningly spontaneous. Relying on body language the way Phoenix does here demands a tremendous amount of precision, but he is in complete command of every detail, right on down to the quivers of his eyes. Phoenix performs without ego, unafraid to make Freddie as ugly and broken as he needs to be, without ever losing sight of the character’s deep-seated humanity.
It is fascinating to merely watch Phoenix inhabit this role, so much so that the early scenes – which simply establish Freddie’s status as drifter, unable to hold one job for long – are disproportionately spellbinding. Freddie’s dysfunction simply grows and grows, and just when the man seems as though he is on the verge of splitting apart at the seams, he stumbles upon a yacht. He boards in a drunken haze, and upon waking the next morning, meets Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), referred to by those on the ship as ‘The Master.’ Dodd is a religious leader, creator of a cult known as ‘The Cause,’ and he takes an immediate interest in Freddie.
‘The Cause’ is not dissimilar to Scientology, though the actual beliefs and practices of the organization are almost entirely beside the point. Anderson is more interested in exploring the relationship between preacher and follower, in the desires that compel some men to seek answers while others choose to dole them out. His interest in the subject stems less from distrust than it does genuine curiosity. He wants to explore how a man like Dodd uses insight and rhetoric to captivate others with empty and outlandish promises, but he also wants to portray how intensely a broken soul like Freddie requires the acceptance and structure Dodd gives. There is nothing simplistic about this relationship. Though one could argue Freddie is being manipulated, Anderson also makes it clear that Dodd truly cares for his newest follower, and is honestly interested in guiding him through a process of healing.
Does Dodd actually believe in his own methods, though? Probably not, though therein lies the beauty of Hoffman’s performance. He delivers every speech and sophism with the conviction one would expect, but is always careful, especially in quieter moments, to portray Dodd as a man – flawed, insecure, and vulnerable – instead of an icon. He is mysterious, but not out of reach, and because of that, we can view his philosophy as dishonest while simultaneously accepting his need to help Freddie. I believe Dodd truly loves this man, whether or not he can offer Freddie an ounce of the salvation he promises, and that complex duality is key to understanding the film.
Near the end of the film, Dodd says to Freddie: “If you figure out a way to live without serving a master, any master, let us know, won’t you? For you would be the first person in the history of the world.” It is the Preacher’s most vulnerable, honest moment, for humans do, as a rule, look to others – be they prophets, lovers, or Gods – for answers. Weakness – embodied in The Master by Freddie but shared in obvious ways by Dodd – is a feeling all of us experience, and moments of frailty will invariably create a desire for acceptance, understanding, or above all else, escape. Escape from the problems that made us weak, be they mental or physical. Escape from the need to confront our demons, or to rely on one’s own inner strength to make sense of the world that hurt us. When we are weak, we deflect, and the Masters Dodd speaks of are those onto whom we do so. Masters simplify life’s complexities. They provide answers. They give us acceptance. By placing our burdens elsewhere, they allow us to escape.
As long as people hurt, they will search for masters, and masters shall in turn appoint themselves for similar reasons. This is the tacit admission contained in Dodd’s words. He does not preach because he has solved the mysteries of the universe, but because he, like Freddie, is confused and wandering. Giving the answers, and being loved in return, is his form of deflection, for it prevents him from considering that the world he lives in is a truly unsolvable puzzle. Perhaps this is the core essence of faith: A cycle of hurting, searching, giving, and receiving, not necessarily in that order, but similar for those on both sides of the pulpit.
One of the film’s most fascinating elements is Mary Sue, Dodd’s beautiful wife played by Amy Adams, for she throws an unsettling wrench into these larger thematic conversations. Mary, unlike her husband, very obviously believes in ‘The Cause,’ and has an almost fetishistic desire to see this religion furthered. Dodd preaches for humans to control their animal instincts, but he himself is highly susceptible to sexual urges, a desire Mary Sue is apparently in complete control of. She is, in fact, always in control. She demonstrates greater mastery of her husband’s rhetorical techniques than Dodd himself, and thanks to Adams’ spellbinding, utterly entrancing performance, the film becomes immediately tense whenever she appears.
Mary Sue exists outside the symbiotic cycle Freddie and her husband are trapped in, and it is possible that she, not Dodd, is the true ‘Master’ of the title. She embodies those who truly serve as their own masters, those whose honest, unwavering devotion to their own convictions allows them to transcend the insecure desires others fall prey to. Because of this, she is foreign to us, frightening and unsettling for the very virtues we should, theoretically, be in awe of. Perhaps her presence indicates a soft acceptance of human imperfection; our flaws may weigh us down, but if we actually manage to strip ourselves of harmful base instincts, do we end up as nothing more than a hollow, distant shell?
While asking such broad, provocative questions, The Master simultaneously proves itself to be one of the most technically accomplished films of the year. Anderson chose to photograph the film on 70mm, an extremely high-resolution stock, and the results – even projected digitally – are immediately awe-inspiring. The clarity is absolutely stupendous, creating an image so deep, vivid and detailed that one feels as though one could simply fall into the fathoms of the frame and disappear forever. Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s gorgeous cinematography would be impressive no matter what, but 70mm just enhances the power of every composition, making for a largely unrivaled visual experience.
Though I have praised the film extensively, The Master is a very difficult film to digest, and I will therefore wait to see it a second time before deeming it ‘great.’ It is simply too dense and opaque to judge in full after one viewing. But the film is often immensely impactful in the moment, and hits even harder after one exits the theatre and begins to contemplate the material. I am, at this instant, enamored with The Master, and recommend it as one of the most singularly fascinating experiences of 2012.