By the time that The Master was released in the fall of 2012, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson was already a critical darling. His first five films, Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood, had built up his reputation as a masterful director of quirky but dark films, who had a stellar eye for visuals. Although The Master was plagued by delays, it was hotly anticipated by Anderson’s fans. The question wasn’t whether or not the film would be good, but rather just how good it would be. The Master, like many great films, ended up being very divisive in the critical community. Even the people who liked it disagreed sharply over what the film actually meant. What had been rumored to be a film about the founding of Scientology turned out to be an esoteric, lyrical study of the relationship between a broken veteran and a charming cult leader.
In fact, The Master is about so many things that Scientology probably wouldn’t make the top ten. This is a film about faith, anxiety, anger, deceit, sex, and so much more. The film begins with Freddie Quell, who is not so much played as brought to life by Joaquin Phoenix. Freddie is a veteran of World War II, who returns to America as a damaged, fractured shell. It is not clear how much of this came about as a result of the war itself, but it is heavily implied that battle has changed Freddie in some way. Freddie drifts from job to job, unable to hold one down due to anger issues, sexual frustrations, and misunderstandings over the moonshine he brews out of everyday materials. We see him making it out of everything from torpedo fluid to photographic chemicals. One night, stumbling around near a pier, he hops onto the ship of enigmatic writer Lancaster Dodd, played deftly by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who samples his booze and decides to let him join “The Cause,” a cult which Dodd leads. The relationship between Freddie and Dodd forms the backbone of the narrative.
It is this relationship which drives much of the critical debate. Though many views can be taken, the most obvious one seems to be of a pet and a master. Dodd describes Freddie as a “dirty animal” multiple times throughout the film. A lengthy montage shows Dodd putting Freddie through a battery of tests designed for The Cause which supposedly bring one to a higher state of consciousness. However, despite their attempts to train the stray dog they took in, Freddie can’t be tamed. Though other members grow increasingly wary of Freddie, Dodd stands by him, saying at one point, “If we cannot help him, then it is we who have failed him.” In a pivotal scene near the end of the film, Dodd takes Freddie, his daughter, and his son-in-law out to the desert to ride around on his motorcycle. Freddie takes the bike and drives off, almost like a dog running away from home.
Although their relationship is central to the film, the bulk of this review will focus on Freddie, because the film is really about his journey and his interactions with these characters. An aspect of Freddie’s character which is pivotal to understanding the movie is his obsession with sex. In an early scene, his fellow soldiers are sitting on a beach, having made a nude woman out of sand. Freddie jokingly starts to hump it, but he continues long past any point of comfort. His desire for sex, or even just human connection, is so great that he settles for a woman made of sand. The final scene of the movie flashes back to this moment, as Freddie cuddles against the sand woman to embrace her. Freddie associates love so strongly with sex that they have become synonymous. To him, the pinnacle of manhood is to have sex with as many women as possible. This is not misogyny on his part, but merely his own desire for love and connection as interpreted by a twisted mind. In flashbacks throughout the movie, we see that Freddie had a sweetheart before the war, a young girl named Doris. They were very much in love, but Freddie was a young man, and Doris was still in high school. Their relationship is not sexual in the least, which further emphasizes the idea that Freddie was more mentally healthy before the war. The lack of female companionship while fighting overseas did great harm to Freddie’s mental state.
Further exemplifying this is a scene from about halfway through the movie, which is the most debated scene in the entire film. It involves two eye-line match cuts. Freddie is at a party thrown by Dodd, attended entirely by members of The Cause, most of whom for some reason are female. Dodd begins to sing a song to his guests. We get a shot of Dodd surrounded by women, then a shot of Freddie, and then we return to the first shot, only all the women are totally nude. This scene alone has inspired multiple interpretations, due to its dreamlike imagery and nature. Some believe that it is a metaphor for Dodd’s ability to influence people and see right through them. When Dodd speaks to you, you may as well be naked. Others thought that it was through the eyes of Dodd’s wife Peggy (played by Amy Adams) who turns out to sexually control Dodd in a surprising way. However, the eye-line match cuts seem to imply that this vision is Freddie’s, and it fits in with his character. Freddie idolizes Dodd, and as mentioned above, Freddie’s image of an ideal man is a man who can have sex with anyone he wants. Dodd is certainly playing to the room, but Freddie sees his charisma as sexual power. He is jealous of Dodd, but not in a malicious way. He wants to learn Dodd’s secrets, which is why a man who is so prone to drifting stays with The Cause for as long as he does, and defends it as virulently as he does. In one scene, a man rips into Dodd’s philosophy at a dinner, and Freddie follows the man back to his hotel room and assaults him. A deleted scene shows him beating up another man who criticizes Dodd’s strange ideas.
Anderson shoots Freddie in an interesting way. The camera is almost always uncomfortably close to Freddie. Freddie is the sort of man who you don’t want to hang around with for fear that he might suddenly snap. By getting so close to him, Anderson forces the audience to study Freddie. This movie is all about Freddie, and in order to have a satisfying experience with the film, you need to study all of his actions, no matter how unsettled you are by them. Despite his lead role, however, Freddie is not a commanding presence. Phoenix is always hunched over or huddling, and Anderson hardly ever frames him in a leading man sort of way. Even when he does take the center of the screen, Phoenix’s performance subverts the framing and makes it ironic. Dodd, on the other hand, is always shown as massive and commanding. Even if he isn’t filling the screen, he’s in complete control of everything on it. Anderson uses low-angle shots early on to establish Dodd as someone with immense power and control, a technique used by Orson Wells in Citizen Kane for the exact same reason. In order for the film to work, the audience has to buy into Freddie’s obsession with Dodd. In a way, the audience has to fall under Dodd’s spell themselves. Both Hoffman’s performance and Anderson’s direction achieve this goal. Peggy Dodd has barely been touched on, but she is a vital part of the film’s chemistry. As previously mentioned, Peggy asserts powerful control over Dodd, although publicly she fades into the background. It is made clear that Peggy has just as much influence over the direction of The Cause as Dodd does, but since Dodd is the public face of the organization, Peggy cannot display her power openly. Anderson also shows this in his direction. In the aforementioned nude party scene, Peggy is there, but barely visible. She is sitting in a chair in the background, also nude, but the camera seems to ignore her despite her being such an important character. In scenes where she is speaking to an assembled crowd, the focus is on the people behind her, even when she is speaking her lines. Peggy is all about holding back your influence and keeping it secret. This makes her arguably the most powerful character in the movie, and The Master is a film that is all about power dynamics, although from Anderson’s direction you’d never know it. The ways in which he shoots these three characters are all specific, but they all speak to the characters themselves in clear ways.
The editing of The Master is unique, and it seems to be the factor which puts many people off to the film. Anderson adapts a Terrence Malick sort of style for The Master, and one of the editors, Leslie Jones, actually worked on Malick’s The Thin Red Line. The entire film feels like a montage, with Anderson floating the audience along from scene to scene with the skill of a maestro conductor. In other films, this technique would fail because the audience would never have time to catch a breath, but here it works because of the lyrical way in which the story progresses. It has the effect of completely pulling the audience into the film right off the bat. It is less a movie than a visual symphony, with many parts coming together to serve a larger whole.
There’s much and more to say about The Master, but no review can go on forever, so I’m going to bring this one to a close. The Master is a brilliant film, an example of the rare brand of cinema that demands your attention and refuses to stoop intellectually. Paul Thomas Anderson is the kind of filmmaker for whom “talented” is an understatement. But enough with the superlatives. The best thing I can say about The Master, or about any film, is that anyone with a remote interest in cinema should at least give it a try. Not everyone will love it, or get the same things out of it that I did, but that doesn’t mean that experiencing it for yourself isn’t worth it. Right now, you can rent it on iTunes for 99 cents. If that doesn’t give you a reason to at least check it out, I don’t know what will.