How much dignity are you willing to sacrifice to be accepted? When we
let others be the master of our beliefs, thoughts, and feelings, we
lose our freedom. For some, skewing from the path of conform leads to
a lonely existence, and it is when others are around to either let
them know they have done good or what direction they should be taking,
they feel alive. It isn’t always entirely lack of self-esteem, but
fear of a life without purpose. The quest for fulfillment here results
in disillusionment on every level.
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, the characters have an
unquenchable thirst to either be loved or return to their state of
“perfect” (yeah right). Both of these goals, the viewer soon enough
realizes, will not be achieved to a lasting effect. Where P.T’s There
Will Be Blood had a tension of inevitable physical harm (hence the
title), The Master takes it’s toll on the viewer by focusing on
expendable, pathetic human beings. They are alienated from morals and
buried in their or others’ bullshit. As such, it is one of the most
damned movies I’ve ever seen. Writing this a week after I saw it, I
can safely say it has left a troubling imprint on me. So I guess this
is what you’d call an exhilarating feel-bad movie.
The first shot we get of Freddie Quell (a distraught Joaquin Phoenix)
is of him poking his head up from what appears to be a war ship. He
looks confused, like he was expecting a bullet to splatter his brains.
His war has ended, and it is now time for him to see the light of day.
The first 20-30 minutes of The Master follow the wicky wacky episodes
of hunched over Freddie. The man is shell-shocked and permanently
incongruous as a result of his alcoholism and just being ugly (the
great kind of ugly you can’t look away from, like Nick Nolte’s
Freddie doesn’t hide his strange perversions. His only responses
during a Rorschach test are descriptions of genitalia (not in an
attempt to annoy the psychiatrist, but that really is all he sees).
And when his fellow sailors create a sand-woman jokingly, he delivers
a monumental buzzkill by humping it and masturbating. This moment
makes Daniel Plainview’s incompetent approach to prostitutes in There
Will Be Blood seem like a simple passing of gas.
Skipping past the marvelous scenes showing his brief jobs as a
department store photographer and farmer that I could go on about at
length, Freddie messes up big time because somebody didn’t drink his
alcoholic concoction “right” (he is a god-damn MacGyver at making
drinks). On the run, he sees a celebration on a yacht and hops on. He
passes out and wakes up to the greeting of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip
Seymour Hoffman). Even during their first meeting we get what kind of
man Dodd is.
When Freddie asks what/who this hospitable person is, the commander of
the yacht goes on about how he is a “writer, a doctor, a nuclear
physicist, a theoretical philosopher”, but the big one is “but above
all I am a man, just like you”. That is like saying “I am better than
you, but I breath the same air as you nonetheless”. Dodd manages to
not make this apparent because of his jolly, affable, and charismatic
But he is just as insane as the younger man who has stumbled into his
world. Dodd leads a cult called The Cause that is all over the place
in it’s meanings. Hoffman is wonderful at showing a man who functions
perfectly as a leader of spineless followers but can easily throw a
mammoth temper tantrum that equal Freddie’s. Dodd grows frustrated for
the same reason anyone else gets angry when questioned: they cannot
justify what the hell they are saying.
Dodd wants his devoted ones to believe that he has accepted Freddie
into their dollhouse as a project. He wants to prove that man is not
an animal by domesticating this stowaway fool. But the real reason
Dodd wants him there is the only reason Freddie follows and stays
despite borderline abuse: love. The Master is like watching tug-of-war
match with a tree. Dodd wants Freddie, maybe in a homoerotic way, but
must make him his Igor by putting him through the same passages he put
his other disciples through. Freddie resists without ever resisting.
It’s just in his nature to not give a crap. This is perfectly shown
when Dodd seduces a room full of people by dancing and singing merrily
when all of the sudden we get a POV of Freddie picturing every woman
in the room naked.
In the film’s most transcendently beautiful sequence, Dodd
successfully hypnotizes Freddie and asks him a series of personal
questions (some causing a priceless uneasy feeling in the theater).
Freddie succumbs thinking it is a game. He shrinks into a innocent,
childish human being and has flashbacks to a beautiful but under-aged
girl Doris (she appeared to be the only person not disgusted with him
in the slightest). Dodd is moved by this, and both he and Freddie’s
The Master is ultimately about dissatisfaction with the human
experience. Even one of the earlier scenes packs a punch when a
faceless voice encourages the mentally exhausted soldiers that they
can still reinvent themselves and live the American dream despite
having undergone such stresses. We know they cannot just from the
beaten, worn expression Phoenix has. This is what Phoenix (35) almost
exactly looks like. That mental-breakdown stunt/joke he pulled two
years ago ended up disfiguring the once handsome actor.
The Master is depressing, but has strangely funny moments. Freddie
slaps himself fiercely when he cannot keep his eyes open during a
procedure. That is what gets under his skin, not someone asking
questions like “have you ever had sex with a member of your family” or
“have you ever killed someone?” Freddie also takes it upon himself to
brutalize anyone who questions Dodd. You can’t help but uncomfortably
laugh when he confronts the publisher of Dodd’s second book and asks
if they can go outside for a second. You know exactly what shall
Freddie acts the way he does because he has been poisoned by
fruitlessness. He doesn’t hold any real stock in The Cause; he just
wants to feel like there is yet a place in the world for someone like
him. But he is rootless, and I am unsettled with the thought that many
have this fate in store. Like Freddie, some are forever drifting,
forever searching, and forever lost.
The Master doesn’t pack as much electricity in nearly every frame like
Anderson’s Magnolia or There Will Be Blood, and it doesn’t need to. It
keeps a peculiar mood like Punch Drunk Love. It does floor with the
sheer physicality of Phoenix, who never breaks character for a second.
He is not a sight that one gets used to, which is why I was on my toes
whenever he was on screen.
Hoffman also works incredibly well under the skin of his bombastic
character. He lives a loveless life, half-heartedly cheering on his
infant daughter only to grow bored and wrestle with Freddie on the
front lawn. Amy Adams is frighteningly good, acting extremely well
during moments some would have preferred to leave behind closed doors.
P.T has created an epic in the bitter vein of his other films but with
a depressed spirit that is very Antonioni. It leads to no sensational
climax, as it should. It mostly whimpers, and when it screams it is
unheard. A scene in a jail-cell where Freddie loses all his cool
doesn’t go anywhere, which is what makes it all the more painful. Take
a scene from a movie like Raging Bull where De Niro’s character pounds
on the concrete walls of his cell and realizes it is his tomb. That
character is accepting that he is worthless filth. Freddie is having a
mere freak-out; nothing more. He hasn’t accepted anything about
Like I said in the beginning of this, The Master hasn’t left me. This
is actually proving to be problematic because I don’t think I’ve seen
any movie since, well, There Will Be Blood that dives into the abyss
and offers nothing but discourage. Paul Thomas Anderson is a fearless
filmmaker, stacking on the motifs and doesn’t let one fall throughout
the whole 130 something minutes. This man, one of our finest, has
shown us something unlovable, impenetrable, and helpless in the
grandest and most beautiful form of cinema.
*the performances are stunning
*the most conversation worthy film of the year so far. The kind I
appreciate more and more with each discussion
*cinematography, set design, score… Everything on the technical
level deserves every accolade
*makes being bleak and depressing seem brave rather than pretentious
*"pigfuck" is shaping up to be the best quote of 2012
*those great parts in the trailer aren’t in here. Apparently Mr.
Anderson wanted to cut out the Terry Malick moments and stay on track.
*it isn’t at all an exposé on cults or L Ron Hubbard, which is how it
is being advertised. Gotta do what you gotta do to get your movie
shown, I guess…
*do you like sleep?
They’re really gonna chop this the hell up come Best Actor Oscar time…