It’s rare for me to want to go and see a film again right away after first seeing it. In fact, this didn’t even do that; after first seeing The Master, the new film by the brilliant Paul Thomas Anderson, I was just left feeling very uneasy about what I had just seen. I had enjoyed it, but I wasn’t entirely sure how much or why. When I thought about it a bit and then saw it for a second time however, it all made sense.
I recently had a discussion with some friends about the role of the film critic and whether one should merely describe a film and reflect opinion without spoilers, or whether they should be adding to the general critical theory of a film. While I’m not going as far as calling myself a film critic, nor that it’s really early enough to properly consider where this film ranks in the critical canon of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work, I’m finding it difficult to write about this film without really going in to it, largely because PTA implores us to (hence the spoiler warning).
The Master is not a film about Scientology. It’s worth making that clear right away. It takes influence from it, but it is more about family dynamics and psychology (and how these can be manipulated into any valid train of thought). What we have here is three central characters, all of whom are fairly unredeeming and unforgivable, and none of whom particularly progress in anyway in the film. It is a film about frustration of the highest order, and that includes us as viewers at times, one is often left feeling ‘why do I care about any of these people? why do I find them so compelling?’ A lot of that is down to PTA’s wonderful direction, there are many blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments where a brief movement or piece of dialogue tells so much with so little, and the fact that all three of Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour-Hoffman and Amy Adams are utterly brilliant. The dynamics between just them is compelling enough (more on that later) let alone for the equally great but occasionally marginalised supporting cast, many of whom are reduced to only a couple lines.
For this is primarily a film about a patriarchal (and from one end, possibly homosexual) relationship between two men who “inspire something in each other.” Seymour-Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, The Master, is infatuated with Freddie Quell (Phoenix), as more of a son than his own, Val (Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons), or his inherited son-in-law Clark (Rami Malek), as a test subject for him to validate his wild theories upon, and perhaps even as a lover. Quell however is a stowaway on an alien ship constantly running from his problems (or at least escaping from them with his dangerous cocktails) who perhaps would like to express himself more eloquently, but has some rather disturbing sexual/patriarchal/violence issues, which may outlast his time at war against the “Japs”, but certainly don’t help. He is dislocated and lost like the generation before him who survived WWI, and is easily snapped up into the sinister claws of The Cause. The two see something in each other that they themselves are lacking: intelligence/action, (perceived) stability/freedom, a “conventional” family/vice and desires.
Throughout, we experience the film through Freddie. It is him we first see on that beach and it is also where we leave him, groping the massive, maternal/sexual sand-woman for both need and desire. It is through him we meet The Master, and his psychological superiority in achieving a deeply emotional reaction in Freddie (though Freddie is quite happy to admit that he slept with his aunt without much prompting – a chink in the armour of Dodd’s experiment). It is through him we experience Dodd’s family and extended family/cult who worship him and his terrible jokes and dramatic anecdotes, because he offers them something they’re missing in a post-war stricken world.
But we learn little about Dodd’s actual past or future, because there doesn’t seem to be much of one. For a man obsessed with the idea of past-lives, we have absolutely no idea what his is other than assuming he is from a learned and privileged background, and that he is want to occasional deviance and vice when not being kept in check by his wife Peggy (Adams). He is in the position of power for most of the film, because the majority of it looks up at him and down at Freddie. But whenever Dodd is questioned about his theory, he has no rational argument to present to them or us, resorting to bursts of pent-up frustration and anger with no substance. He is able to control Freddie (for a while at least) because he offers a glimmer of hope in his life on more than one occasion, but his attempts at helping (masked as attempts to break down his spirit and demeanour) fail just as the (Freudian) psychoanalytic post-traumatic therapy Freddie goes through at the beginning of the film does.
All we really know about Lancaster Dodd, other than being doted on by his cult, is that even he has a master, in his wife Peggy. And what a terrifying, Lady Macbeth-like, creature she is, brought wonderfully to life by Adams and Anderson. In public she is the picture of beauty and chastity as any loving wife obeying her husband at the time should be. She fades into the background of shots when she needs to be. But behind the scenes she is perhaps even more obsessive and driven than Lancaster, unphased by Freddie or outsider threats/desires, she is what is really driving him along while keeping him on a mid-length leash. And it is she who really connects and stands between Freddie and her husband. She is frustrated at her husband’s constant attempts (and potential desires) to “help” Freddie, as she seems to believe in The Cause much more than anyone else. She privately strives for power and uses her husband as a vessel to those ends, but he is distracted while Freddie is around. But it connects the two men, because her matriarchal relationship with both of them plays on Freddie’s aforementioned family issues and probable sexual abuse as a child, and Lancaster’s equal desire for a mother figure, because he rarely, if ever, treats Peggy as a lover.So with all that in mind, this is a film equally about sexual repression and frustration as it is the “second lost generation” of post-war America. Freddie is at times quite overtly sexually disturbed, attempting to be coital with the the sand-woman and a window pane during the horrible “walk-back-and-forth” application, as well as the aforementioned Aunt Bertha. So it is perhaps telling that the innocence of a much younger girl seems to be his only chance at self-peace. But knowing he’ll only hurt and project his dark past onto Doris’s shining purity, he runs away once again, like so many men of his generation, only to return too late to reclaim it. So Freddie ends up, after experiencing so much pain and rejection, just another product of a violent generation of men incapable of properly expressing themselves through anything other than violence or vulgar-over sexuality. He seems at more peace when the film, and he, finally reaches some sort of climax with Winn Manchester (Lancaster?), but even this isn’t particularly fulfilling, when he replaces his previous issues with the ones taught by The Master in his line of questioning, and certified by his returning to the sand-woman at the film’s close. It is not surprising then, that some audiences have struggled with this film. We experience all the frustrations and horrors society has to offer the displaced Freddie, and it is a largely unhappy and cyclical place.
This film could, if you’ll forgive the pun (and given the “climax” one earlier you should), be a masterpiece. But it is far too early to tell. Natural comparisons to the vastly more fulfilling (but no more uplifting) There Will be Blood and Magnolia has left some cold with this film, and it is an understandable reaction; this is a frustrating film about frustration. All that is instantly gratifying about it is its beautiful cinematography and soundtrack (once again provided by Jonny Greenwood). I couldn’t help (and this is largely because of a certain subjective documentary I saw recently) but feel reminded slightly of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Though on the face of it, they’re not too comparable, they are too dense and detail-rich films that are more about character and subtext and occasional experimentation than narrative; with a constant sense of unease and some dominating performances. It’s far too early to tell if The Master will eventually be heralded in the same hushed sacred tones as Kubrick’s classic, I’m not even sure if I think it should be just yet, but they both received very mixed reviews on release for seemingly very similar reasons.