The Master: From its Norman Rockwell-like wealth of colors, ones that run the gauntlet of the spectrum without playing favorites, to it’s sense of control and over-branded capitalism, The Master feels every bit like a slice of America. Albeit, this isn’t the America Rockwell was promoting, at least not on the intended surface. This is a far more cynical examination of normal men living within a culture that purports to be democratized by the “Will of God.” Every human is born to follow while also born with the urge to fight back. It’s this opposing force that constitutes much of the internal turmoil suffered by humans throughout their daily lives. From this struggle, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film takes it’s lead. Everything whirls hypnotically, as if forming inside a furious maelstrom, all building around the idea of whether one man can control that which is unwieldy and whether that which is unwieldy is ever truly lacking control. The film begs the question: Are we simply animals blessed with the ability to reason ourselves into an oppressed calm that poses as happiness?
Freddie Quell has just returned from duty at the end of World War I. He seems aloof and searching, with a penchant for violent outbursts. Without knowing his motives, we watch as he takes a job as a portrait photographer then as a farmhand in Salinas. Both occupations end with Freddie being chased away, back into the judgmental world. One night Freddie comes upon a party boat where The Master, Lancaster Dodd, entertains a group of followers for his “cause.” Freddie immediately interests Dodd and becomes something of a protégé, or at least an experiment. Freddie represents the most complex threat to the theory of controlled perfection that Dodd and his people promote. As the film progresses, mostly in moments of suffocating tension between Quell and Dodd, we begin to see that little truth informs Dodd’s method, only that he understands humans mostly need to be lead. He believes himself the kind of charismatic leader able to instill a strong way of life on these followers. Freddie initially resists the indoctrination into the group then falls for it until finally leaving for good. Therein lay the essay-like structure of this most challenging film; a probing study of whether man has been put on Earth to defy their animalistic urges in a rigid order or if true freedom comes from an unrestrained tackling of life.
More so even than There Will Be Blood, The Master feels like Anderson’s slow-burning meditation on how America as a whole has been duped into believing it can be locked up into a nice safe of civilized, democratic rule. To do this, Anderson unleashes the underbelly of man in its most primal and cannibalistic forms. Where There Will Be Blood was about greed and recognition sold to the masses as prosperous attempts at societal betterment (yes, in Anderson’s epic scope the discovery of oil seems almost spiritual), The Master centers on man’s effort to gain control by creating a system of helping people get to the positive life of “perfect.”
The film is as much about the ideas of branding as what’s on the inside. The concept comes up when Dodd’s son announces, “He’s making it up as he goes.” Later, the idea comes to a head when Laura Dern’s Helen Sullivan asks The Master why he’s changed the text in his newest publication from “recall the past” to “imagine the past.” It’s a way of life she believes in and has taken on as her own. He says he’s changed the text because it means a more vast scope of thought if the human brain may be allowed to imagine rather than simply recall. He’s making it up as he goes along, but maybe this isn’t such a wrongful approach. What makes Lancaster Dodd a challenging character is that his heart remains in the right place for the duration of the film. In fact, much of his diatribes about the nature of man and the need to repress skepticism in order to live a prosperous life make a lot of sense. Late in the picture, he tells Freddie, “If you figure out how to go along in life without serving a master, come back and tell us all how.” What Dodd externalizes is the need for a person to have something to believe in. What the belief is doesn’t necessarily matter, as long as you are not living the kind of directionless life Freddie does.
Much will be said about how Philip Seymour Hoffman’s controlled rage not only matches but in many ways surpasses the fury that boils at the surface of Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix, as Freddie Quell, does a masterful job of trying to shut himself down and close himself off, to repress the need he has inside to never be held down by the man. Of course, he never does succeed, instead always allowing a violence to simmer over the top into scene after scene of lion-like roars of explosion. While Quell’s inner desires surface as a need to numb himself with the harshest alcohol he can find and a search for sex with the first woman who accepts, what’s underneath is a man who has seen the horrors of domestic life – his mother in a mental institution – and the realities of a war.
Unlike the merry, celebratory newscasts that beam “War Is Over” proclamations from the radio, Quell belongs to a band of young soldiers who didn’t grow up to the brainwashed psychology of the advertised “American way.” These are people that have seen truths and what they seek is the thrill of raw pleasure, of naked girls, of pain, and of drinking diesel fuel. Quell is an enigma that can’t be controlled, which is why he so fascinates Dodd. Central to The Master is the tango between the two complicated men at its core. At once, Dodd’s affection for Freddie feels paternal and homoerotic; all the while Freddie is a means for discovery to the ever-curious Dodd. Interestingly, Dodd’s own ability to control himself remains lacking throughout. He gets a hand-job from his cold and loving wife (played in superlative, Lady Macbeth fashion by Amy Adams). He drinks like a fish and often explodes in angry bursts, swearing with reckless abandon. Freddie exemplifies all the urges Dodd tries desperately to repress in himself.
The 70mm photography gives the viewer clarity of image that enhances the realism of the moments as well as a depth of focal range that lends lucidity to nostalgia. Mark Bridges’ costumes hang like drapes off the unkempt Freddie while precisely fitting all other characters with dollhouse-like wool jackets or neatly-pressed dresses. The costumes are well-researched, again giving a vividness to the sensation of memory, nostalgia, and past. What struck me most was the production design’s ability to feel real even while always keeping one foot in history This is not your David Lean historical epic, but a documentary recreation of a bygone time. One gets the sense that the camera was actually dropped into the moments so that the sheen of movie magic has no ability to come in and smear the authenticity with falsity.
Jonny Greenwood’s score pumps a rush of blood into images that might otherwise act as still life, beautifully shaped portraits of faces, of landscapes, or sublimely cursed visions of serene Americana. The rhythm seems to borrow from the bouncing chaos of Anderson’s former girlfriend, Fiona Apple, an unpredictable array of beats that fire in every direction. The music matches the tides of the story, all building towards some deeper, darker revelation that may or may not be revealed with any sense of clarity at the end. Something is impending on the horizon of The Master, but the closer we get, the more frightful it becomes. Not because we should fear the answer, but because our greatest fear will be unveiled: there is no answer at all. Just as we might expect an inferior score to crescendo as it hits it’s auditory peaks and the picture climaxes, Greenwood’s score caroms off the next wall and then dribbles erratically into another sphere altogether. That Anderson employs a jazz-like unpredictability both signals a topical nod to the cage-shaking music going on in the peripheries of the time and feels like homage to the past. The jazz reference is fitting for a director always playfully working with derivations of other art forms that inspire him.
With a film like The Master, it’s easy to get caught staring at the fireworks of praise. Great art has a way of doing that. Disguising their flaws in the singularity of their vision. It’s well enough to do something important, but to excuse missteps that you might otherwise hold lesser films to task for is simply ignorant. The Master is not without its pitfalls. For instance, what drives Freddie Quell? For me, he seems a selfish human devoid of the platitudes we have comes to bathe within as we grow older in civilized life. He’s like a wild cat taking in only what he can, but acting out explosively in the only ways he truly can control. Unfortunately, because he’s so raw, he’s also virtually non-relatable. As such, scenes like the final meeting between Quell and Dodd don’t resonate with the kind of emotion I suspect they intended to. We see Freddie tear up, and there’s curiosity again as to what goes on behind his eyes, but nothing more.
In the end, Freddie finally gets the sex he’s been craving throughout the film and then leaves The Master for good. Are we to presume he has now been purged? The film ends with Quell looking for true, non-judgmental hope or love. Something he finds only with the big-breasted girl he’s carved in the sand. But what does Quell actually want? To be normal? To get better? To be truly free? These aren’t questions left unanswered so much as moments that play out without a base for resolution, thus only the desire to create conjecture can make them satisfying. It’s a desire I do possess, but one that does prevent me from seeing The Master as an altogether cohesive experience.
The Master is easily the most important film I’m yet to see in 2012. Only Cosmopolis can breathe the same air. Like Cronenberg’s film, every detail pushes the measures to which cinema can convey themes and ideas. It’s words, it’s hair, it’s production design, it’s acting, it’s camera work, it’s framing, it’s staging, and every other miniscule aspect of usable cinematic space has been thought about in an effort to construct a controlled probing of the greater global and socio-cultural psyche. Anderson, like Cronenberg, takes cinema seriously. A viewer considering his work must give it the same kind of seriousness, otherwise it’s not worth it to look. There are many films that will answer the questions you need to feel better about. They will propose concepts and then give you reasons why it’s not worth it to regard those concepts much further than the exit door to the theater. Anderson’s films are not this way. As a serious art form, cinema is the most capable way of conveying ideas, indictments, or messages to a mainstream viewer. No other art form can incite all of our senses, therefore, in The Master not one part of the negotiation between filmmaker, image, and viewer is glossed over. [A-]