There’s much to admire in Paul Thomas Anderson’s mysterious, engrossing and brilliant epic The Master (2012) but admire is the right word. This is not a film to be liked, in fact, sometimes it’s even difficult to enjoy. Anderson is a fluent filmmaker and a loose writer and he can give us movies that glide along or drive forward. He’s going for something different here. That those stylistic changes serve the story is clear but I’m not sure how long it will be before I’d like to see The Master again.
The movie follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran of World War II trying to reclimatize to society. He’s extremely disturbed; his father was a drunk and his mother was committed and the apple is fairly close to both trees. When given a psychological evaluation by the military he’s told that there are no wrong answers but he manages to find them anyway. Just the same, he’s set loose on the world where he’s able to secure a job as a photographer in a department store, with the added benefit of the chemicals in the dark room, which he mixes with booze to speed up his flight from sobriety. After an incident he catches on harvesting cabbage but another tragic episode forces him out of that. In a drunken stupor he stubbles onto a boat, subconsciously longing to return to his Naval roots, and subsequently stumbles upon the Cause, the cult-like faction led by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Freddie thinks the group is bonkers but slowly Dodd and his latest wife Peggy (Amy Adams) convert him. The basis of the Cause is never made clear but it has something to do with reincarnation and the recalling of past lives (lives that go back trillions of years, apparently) to glean benefits in the present. When done right it can cure cancer, Dodd says. Freddie undergoes “processing,” the mode by which Cause members communicate with their former selves and access their ancient memories. The procedure includes closing your eyes, or holding them open as the case may be, while Dodd asks you odd, probing and seemingly random questions. Freddie reconnects with the memory of his lost love and is hooked. From then till the end of the movie Freddie’s faith in the movement will wax and wane as he has doubts of whether the charismatic Dodd has any idea what he’s talking about.
Anderson tells the story from the duel point of view of Freddie and Dodd, which is the movie’s central relationship, one that Dodd believes is special. “You’re the bravest boy I’ve ever met,” he tells Freddie, after a moment that seems curious to have earned such praise. He later regales Freddie with the story of when they first met, generations ago in different bodies. Both are clearly insane, but at different levels of functionality. Freddie is a sociolpath, erratic and violent. Dodd is well-dressed and well-mannered but it doesn’t take long to realize he is also delusional and disjointed, inventing his theories on the fly. “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher but above all I am a man,” Dodd announces as if he’s revealed a great profundity. A lot of his sermons behave that way; they give the impression of greatness but there’s nothing there. As such, the movie is told in a willfully obscure way. It’s not entirely clear what the Cause stands for or what anyone would find appealing about it. Perhaps sanity robs us of our ability to comprehend. What’s clear is that Freddie, like many war veterans, is filled with emptiness and a hatred of the world he participated in the destruction of. When he comes into Dodd’s fold, he’s vulnerable enough that he’s ready to accept the bull. He wants to believe.
And believe he does, buying into the theory completely and channeling his violence towards those who oppose it. On many levels, the relationship of Dodd and Freddie is one of a man and a dog. Dodd warns Freddie of his animalistic nature, he gives him commands like “Sit” and “Stop” and when they are separated they great each other by rolling around on the ground. Freddie is a certainly a dog to Dodd, who trains him using increasingly bizarre methods that seem painfully designed to humiliate and antagonize Freddie, who continues to line up for more. Dodd tells a anecdote about the domestication of dragons that mirrors his relationship with Freddie. Further, like a dog that has outgrown its purpose Dodd, the master, is all too pleased to let the beast go.
Anderson’s movies are often about striving in one way or another, about men desperately trying to make that scratch, that undying mark on the blank face of the oblivion to which we are all doomed. In his earlier movies, these ambitions have been more meager, making a mark on a second-rate city like Reno, or the hidden industry of pornography. Since then the aims have grown progressively more ardent, showing us men who are driven to leave their signatures on the annuls of history. Of course, this is folly, and Anderson’s camera is also one of the provisional. As much as his tyrannical leading men rail against it, they cannot make time stop, even for one second, just for them. These Sutpenesque men that are often the heroes of Anderson’s pictures exist outside of traditional morality and live only in the cold arena of rationality, though its a rationality they exclusively set up the rules for. That is why a man like Dodd is able to cast aside his former wives and associates so easily and yet still believe in the love and civility he preaches. It’s why this man, this Dodd, made up to resemble a auricomous Charles Foster Kane, can so easily disregard the bravest boy he’s ever met. The purpose of the Cause is for peace and the end of suffering we hear, but Dodd wants those things on his terms.
Dodd has those aims but he doesn’t have those convictions. It’s impossible to tell how much of his own theories he buys into but he certainly doesn’t have a problem changing them midstream. There’s a sense that he created the Cause to make himself immortal but that doesn’t take into consideration the scores of people who think it’s real and take it seriously. The subterranion message of the movie is that for both Freddie and Dodd, the women of their lives are the real masters. Progressively, Peggy proves herself to be the true believer of the Cause and further, the real driver of it. Insane as that may make her, she displays a confidence that Dodd lacks. “This is something you do for a billion years, or not at all,” she says firmly. It’s doubtful even Dodd is ready for that commitment. Though it seems years pass as the story unfolds, Peggy always appears to be the same amount of pregnant. It’s a subtle reminder that as much as the men can talk about spirits transferring from old bodies to new bodies, if there are going to be any new bodies, it’s going to Peggy and the rest of her gender to create them. Sexuality is oddly coupled with the teachings of the Cause and Peggy takes full advantage of her favor in that department. The impact of her character is the most powerful in the movie as she muscles her way from the sidelines of the story to the center stage of our consciousness.
For Freddie, his relationship with women is less complicated and certainly less subtle. From the first foot of film he’s established as a sexual objectifier. He and his fellow soldiers have made a woman out of sand on the beach of some Pacific island and Freddie vigorously uses it. It will be his most significant female relationship. Even his memories of the girl who got away, an inelegant tale of a man too old and wild and a girl too young and naïve, are less real than this sand woman. He thinks of the women he meets only as sex objects, a truth the movie hammers home in sequence after sequence. We often return to flashbacks of Freddie with his mate on the beach. Freddie is a man who stands for nothing but desperately wants to, that makes him both the ideal candidate for a cock-and-bull movement like the Cause and, like his sabulous companion, he is fragile and can dissolve away in an instant.
The disjointed style of the storytelling, which ultimately denies us much of the charm of Anderson’s previous work, makes sense in the context of The Master, which is in many ways about slight of hand even if both magician and audience are being fooled. Too many times it becomes indulgent and can run counter to the enjoyment of those watching, but it never fails to be mesmorizing. Visually, it’s as stunning as anything Anderson’s ever done, giving us the rich colors on gorgeous 65M film. There is some bravura camerawork (cinematography by Mihai Malaimare, Jr.) and wonderful compositions, including a shot in a jail cell that sharply contrasts the differences between Freddie and Dodd and a picture of Freddie sprawled on the mast of a warship which made me think of the final images of Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1973). This is an imperfect movie, it is much more prohibitive than even Anderson’s lonely There Will Be Blood (2007), but it’s about imperfect people and it tells their story as best it can.