by Eddy Rathke
The Master begins on a boat that leads to the beach, away from WWII, somewhere very far from where the film will go. Like Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, the opening scenes set the stage for what’s to come, a sort of thematic mood hits and never leaves. The difference between Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and his two other great films is that these beginnings are returned to again and again, haunting the protagonist.
Like There Will Be Blood, this is a film driven, relentlessly, by character. The narrative and all else is secondary to the giant on screen. The Master, however, has two giants. Freddie Quell played by Joaquin Phoenix, like Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview dominates the screen with such violence and intensity, it’s very easy to forget that there are other people in the films.
And that’s what people will talk about, what they already are talking about. Joaquin Phoenix is transformed. From his gait to his posture to the way he speaks to the way he fidgets and holds his mouth, he is Freddie Quell, completely, effortlessly. There is a simmering violence, this supreme agitation that hounds every second of Freddie’s life. Whether from PTSD carried over from the war, the strange drinks he mixes from any chemical he can find, or some unstated and undiagnosed mental illness is never really the question and so we never get an answer. What we do get is a man consumed by demons, by his past. Freddie is wild and unpredictable, drinking concoctions not so much to escape reality but to distort it, make it tenable.
This is the man who meets Lancaster Dodd [Philip Seymour Hoffman], based loosely or completely on L Ron Hubbard. He is Freddie’s opposite in every way. He is calm and savvy, either a charlatan or a true believer in his own cause, The Cause. A minor cult leader given support, sometimes a great deal of it, from those who believe in him. Like Freddie’s personality, the seeds of Dodd’s belief are never called into question or put into focus. He may be making it all up just to keep himself afloat or he may truly believe in his psychic and temporal explorations. One thing we do know from the film is that dissent or questions are not things he tolerates.
These are the men the film is built around and it is because of them that a film 140 minutes in length goes so quickly. They are titans on screen, Hoffman holding us with his grace and charm, Phoenix holding us by pure frenetic energy. The film lives and dies by their performances and, for a film that is extremely low on narrative and action, it is booming with energy. The scene where these two men truly meet, and Dodd begins to process Freddie, is one of the most mesmerising scenes I’ve seen in years, maybe since Daniel Day-Lewis drank Paul Dano’s milkshake in There Will Be Blood.
But what does this all get us?
You will hardly see films made like The Master. The only other american director who can do the things that Anderson does with a camera is probably Terrence Malick. The composition of each frame, the score by Jonny Greenwood, the movement of the cameras, the performances: this is the work of a master, a man truly at the top of his craft. Every second of the film is a work of art and, along with Phoenix and Hoffman, it is the way Anderson constructs scenes and sequences that holds us in place, completely entranced. If Lancaster Dodd is carrying The Cause by sheer personality, Paul Thomas Anderson is carrying his film by force of will and artistry.
While I love this film, will probably go to see it again and then watch it again on Netflix and again and again, it manages to not do very much. Where There Will Be Blood seemed rather plotless and sprawling, there was a message and a direction for the film. The Master leaves only questions, and only questions about Freddie and Dodd. It does not make us question our own lives or beliefs or toy with the concepts of morality or eternity because it does not challenge the characters and their beliefs. Rather it leaves us with a small portion of these two men’s lives. We have seen them intersect and interact. We have seen them love one another as brothers, perhaps more. And we have seen them separate. It is easy to see what they saw in one another. For Freddie, Dodd was a potential answer or cure. To Dodd, Freddie was his muse, a map hidden in the psyche of a broken man.
But what is there for the audience here? I’m not of the opinion that narrative is a necessity or even that stories need to have some sort of point, no matter how clear or ambiguous, but The Master despite its brilliance leaves a sense of longing, of dissatisfaction.
And maybe that’s appropriate, as we watch Freddie return to the beginning of the film, embracing a woman made of sand while those words Peggy [Amy Adams] spoke to him in the middle of the night ring in the audience’s ears, encouraging him to find something in the future and steer his life toward it.