Notebook Reviews: Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master"

A well-researched period piece that counterposes a cartoony anti-hero with a duplicitous religious leader—sounds an awful lot like There Will Be Blood, doesn’t it? But in spite of these and other similarities (eccentric sound design, period-perfect diction, Jonny Greenwood score), Paul Thomas Anderson's latest "State of the American Dream, Circa ...." movie has more in common with his 2002 romance Punch-Drunk Love.  Absorbing but also curiously inert, The Master is a very small film writ very, very large—a moody, loopy two-hour-plus character study, which (if you're feeling extra, extra-textual) doubles as an exploration of post-war American malaise. It is emphatically not a big, loud exclamation-mark movie à la There Will Be Blood (though it actually features louder, crazier yelling), and is defined more by what it eschews—explicit character psychology, resolutions, catharsis, a third act—than what it presents. It's an imperfect film. Some scenes drag; others are just boring. Much of The Master's second half feels diffuse, obtuse, abstruse—basically every -use word I can think of. And yet the first hour or so of the movie constitutes the finest filmmaking of Anderson's career—go-for-broke virtuoso use of cinema as a medium.

Ape-like, sex-fixated, easily-frustrated man-children are something of a stock character in Anderson's work (see: Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, Tom Cruise in Magnolia, and especially Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love). The Master's central character, Freddie Quell, represents the most thoroughly-developed variation on this type. Played by a twitchy, contorted Joaquin Phoenix—one eye perpetually half-closed, upper lip quivering, back hunched, hands awkwardly positioned at his sides, elbows jutting out and forward so that his chest makes a concave shape—Freddie is an ex-Navy man sulking, drinking, and fighting his way through post-World War II America.

He is also trying to fuck every other woman he meets. The Master has many thematic and narrative threads—the difficulty soldiers have re-adjusting to post-war life, a leader's need for underlings, religion and therapy as performance—but follows only one all the way through: Freddie's sex life. He spends the entire film lusting after women, and finally ends up in bed with one in the last minutes of the movie. 

Male sexual insecurity / confusion as a plot and character motivator is pretty standard Anderson territory (if you think it's absent from There Will Be Blood, the only Anderson film not to feature a major female character, I'd like to point out that the movie centers on a power struggle involving very, very phallic oil wells which occasionally erupt in big gushes of sticky fluid). As in the case of Punch-Drunk Love and a great many Major American Novels along the Updike-Roth axis, The Master's exploration of masculine neuroses flirts with misogyny (Boogie Nights appears to flirt with misogyny if you don't take into account the fact that all of the characters are idiots). The Master's major female characters fall into one of two categories: they're either placid, youthful feminine ideals (Madisen Beaty), or two-faced harpies (Amy Adams, Ambyr Childers). The big exception is the character played by Laura Dern, though that may be because—unlike Beaty, Adams, or Childers—she is never presented as a sex object for Freddie.

So, following his dick wherever it points him, Freddie ends up in the inner circle of Master (no "the," like a rank—Captain, Lieutenant, etc.), the leader of an up-and-coming pseudo-scientific cult. The two bond over their shared love of quasi-toxic moonshine. Master likes Freddie because he's brusque and emotionally unguarded and because he's used to following orders—a perfect test case for his therapeutic / theological principles. Freddie likes Master because he's the only person who seems to take an interest in him. They drink, they talk, they drink some more. Master sings (poorly, but with a lot of vigor). Freddie attempts to seduce (or whatever you call passing a note that says "Do you want to fuck?") various female members of Master's cult. He beats up some people for being smartasses. He looks surly and sullen. He fantasizes about the women in the cult, imagining a room full of naked gals cavorting with Master. Eventually, Freddie leaves. Master seems pretty sad about it. Freddie gets laid. The movie ends. 

That's the plot (or lack thereof) of The Master in a nutshell. However, a basic summary like this doesn't really give a very good sense of what the movie's like, or what it's about.   

Played by a red-faced and frequently sweaty Philip Seymour Hoffman, Master—whose name, Lancaster Dodd, isn't spoken until halfway through the film—is modeled on L. Ron Hubbard. His reincarnation-focused religion, the Cause, is a thinly-veiled stand-in for Dianetics—the "organized science of thought" / Hubbard-peddled snake oil that later grew into the Church of Scientology. Other characters have analogues in Scientology's history (Master's ambitious, icy wife—played by Adams—is Hubbard's third wife, Mary Sue Whipp), and many of the incidents Freddie witnesses (when he's sober, that is) over the course of the film, which is set in 1950, mirror events that occurred in the Dianetics community in 1952. 

Approached as a takedown of Scientology, The Master is pretty toothless. The worst things Anderson accuses Hubbard—er, Dodd—of doing are writing bad checks and marrying a shrew. But that's because The Master isn't about Scientology—or about a thinly-veiled stand-in for Scientology, for that matter. The Cause and Dodd provide Anderson with foils for Freddie; this is, after all, Freddie's movie, and everything in it exists largely (though not exclusively) to explore his experience—his sensations, fantasies, memories—and reveal different sides of his personality.  

The Master's first half is a grand crescendo. Details accrue. Image by image, Anderson build up Freddie and the post-war dreamworld—symbolic, pastel-colored—that he is drifting through. The film opens with the end of World War II—a war that is represented, very simply and elegantly, with a single close-up of Freddie's helmeted head as he puffs on a cigarette, looking off into the distance. Freddie is next seen monkeying around with his shipmates, eating bananas and pretending to have sex with a shapely sand-woman on a beach.

What The Master lacks in plot, it makes up for in nautical metaphors and imagery. The film's first shot (repeated several times) is of the wake behind a ship. Freddie is a seaman, and first meets Dodd while working aboard a yacht Dodd is travelling on. Freddie is drifting from place to place, carried along by social currents, and the Cause provides an anchor. Dodd, in turn, needs crewmen like Freddie who will help him run the ship without ever wondering where it's going.

The therapeutic practices of the Cause involve repetition of meaningless tasks; one lengthy and admittedly tedious scene involves Freddie walking from one end of a room to another over and over. This ritualized, organized therapy more often than not recalls shipboard life (it also recalls theatrical rehearsals and acting exercises—"the demagogue as dramaturg," a suggestive thread the film never quite follows through on).

Aware that Freddie is finally leaving him, sailing away for good, Dodd serenades him with "(I'd Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China"—and so on and so on. As if to link the central character's sexual compulsion to the nautical theme, one of The Master's first scenes features Freddie jerking off into the ocean. (Seaman is, of course, homophonous with semen.) 

Next, Anderson follows Freddie to a VA hospital, where he is told along with a group of fellow (presumably traumatized) vets that he's going to have to live in a world where people don't understand the horrors he's seen. Freddie is given a Rorschach test and answers "pussy" to every inkblot (except the last one, which looks like "a cock").

At last, we see Freddie as a civilian; only much later do we learn that five years have passed. Dressed in comically-high-waisted pants that accentuate his distorted posture (admission: watching Phoenix in the film made my back hurt), Freddie is now making a living as a department store photographer, getting drunk off of darkroom chemicals, generally acting nervy and making his subjects uneasy. Shot / reverse shot sequences—which become Anderson's main tool, especially during The Master's dialogue-heavy middle section—contrast the fake smiles and stiff poses of the photo studio customers with Freddie's furrowed frown and his impulsive movements.

After getting into a fight with a customer, Freddie ends up as a migrant cabbage picker. When another migrant worker gets poisoned by some of Freddie's homemade liquor, he flees an angry mob—a sequence that is one part comic and one part terrifying (not unlike Freddie himself). This is when Freddie, blackout drunk, walks on to a docked yacht and meets Dodd. As the film sticks largely—though, again, not exclusively—to Freddie's perspective, the meeting scene is elided.

Much has been made of the fact that The Master was shot in 70mm (it is not, however, shot entirely in 70mm; at least one scene, set during a wedding aboard the aforementioned yacht, looks to have been shot on 35mm). Anderson's use of the format is, to say the least, unusual. Because of the extreme clarity a 70mm image provides—and the fact that it has a native 2.20 aspect ratio—the format has historically been used for wide-screen, wide-shot, deep-focus filmmaking. But The Master is composed largely in close-ups and medium shots. Its depth of field ranges from shallow to sliver-thin (during one scene, only Phoenix's right cheek is in focus). Many outdoor scenes are intentionally blown-out. And, just to cap it all off, the film is made to be projected in 1.85 (reportedly, Anderson planned to compose the movie in the even-boxier 1.66 aspect ratio—very cinephilic, but not terribly practical as far as getting a movie distributed in America is concerned). 

In other words, The Master's style—which avoids the Scorsese-esque Steadicam flourishes that characterized much of Anderson's early work—has all of the hallmarks of "small" filmmaking. Most shots are static. Much of the film takes place in cramped, claustrophobic spaces. 

This intentional smallness becomes The Master's major flaw. What makes the film's second half so frustrating is the way it refuses to resolve any of the problems Anderson introduces so potently—through careful cuts, visual shorthand, and immersive juxtapositions of sound and image—in the first half. The film creates Freddie, and then languishes in him. (As if to further the symbolic significance of the ocean and naval life in the first half of the movie, many of these later "languishing" scenes are set in the desert—a not very subtle suggestion that the Cause is an emptier, less fluid place than Freddie originally believed it to be).

If the film has a center, it's not the relationship between Freddie and Dodd, or the Cause, or the post-war experience—it's Freddie's libido. It's more than a bit disappointing that a film that hints at so much ends up being about so little. (However, there's always the question of how much ended up on the cutting room floor; all of The Master's teasers and trailers featured scenes that are not in the film itself, suggesting that a great deal more material was scripted and shot than made it into the movie.)

Part New Hollywood revival, part contemporary art filmmaking / "slow cinema" exercise, The Master is one of the most difficult films made by a household-name American director in some time; it begins quick and exhilarating, and ends slow and poky. Still, it'd be a mistake to call the movie a noble failure. The Master sets out to do some risky things: it deals with an organization that purports to mend all problems (and cure "certain types of leukemia") and refuses to offer anything like a neat ending; it presents two flawed characters—a peripatetic, priapic fuck-up and a charlatan—and refuses to judge them; and it very nearly makes Dodd into a tragic figure, a pathetic quasi-despot who is neither as smart nor as cool as he believes himself to be, and who needs followers to feel validated (after all, if he can't master a simpleton like Freddie, what kind of Master can he be?). It's admirable—though "admirable" doesn't mean "great." However, there's at least an hour of a masterpiece in there.

Responses

14 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • Bobby Wise

    Hmm. Everyone wants to discuss IV’s writing on Resident Evil, Part 6, no one wants to discuss his writing on The Master?

  • Daniel Kasman

    Does that include you, Bobby? ;)

  • Bobby Wise

    Hey, I’m the first poster here, so I have diplomatic immunity to questions of that ilk!

    Haven’t seen The Master, don’t have plans to any time soon. As usual, just eager to read good criticism and even better discussion after the fact.

  • Nicole B

    I thought There Will Be Blood was magnificent, but I’d rather read a good consideration of Resident Evil. I just need to waltz on over to Cinema Scope or Kent Jones’ wonderful article or any number of fine film sites to read about Anderson’s latest. None of them will be writing about Retribution 3D, though, so thank God for Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.

  • Clint

    I’ll bite.

    I think Ignatiy is dead on. I’ve seen The Master twice now. The first time I was overwhelmed and struck by how opaque and bizarre the movie is. Seeing it for the second time kind of demystified it; for all of its strangeness the movie is quite simple-minded. Once the second half kicks in and the focus is put on the rituals and promotion of “The Cause,”, I was almost completely let down.

    As Ignatiy stated, though, the first hour is fantastic. My favorite cinematic moment of the year may well be when Freddie says goodbye to Doris and walks away, and it then cuts to the shot of the wake behind the ship, all accompanied by Jonny Greenwood’s haunting instrumental. That part took my breath away.

  • Ted Fendt

    I kind of had the opposite reaction to Clint. I was rather underwhelmed during my first viewing (though I partially blame the awful 70mm presentation at Village East), and did find a number of scenes in the second half fairly tedious.

    After a second viewing during which I was far more engrossed, I didn’t really have any of the same problems.

    IV: “one lengthy and admittedly tedious scene involves Freddie walking from one end of a room to another over and over.”

    I felt the same way about this scene upon first viewing but realized it isn’t really one long scene at all.

    After Freddie’s out of the picture for a bit, having been arrested, Dodd’s daughter, her husband and his wife all voice their complaints about Freddie. Once Freddie returns, they seem to begin to earnestly try to fix/help him, perhaps to justify the Cause-methods to themselves/others. The ‘scene’ IV refers to is actually one part of a sequence featuring several scenes of Freddie undergoing Cause exercises that are intercut together in a fairly brisk, ever intenser manner. The tension increases as nothing happens for Freddie and he becomes more and more frustrated that this guy isn’t actually doing anything for him (it’s worth remembering that during his first session with Dodd he had had that very moving and evocative flashback to his time with Dorris).

    I’d also disagree that the film’s ‘intentional smallness’ is a – or THE – major flaw. Like John Ford going against the ‘rules’ for how to shoot three screen Cinerama in HOW THE WEST WAS WON, Anderson goes completely against the established rules/expectations for how you’re ‘supposed’ to shoot a 70mm film: super detailed action scenes, huge landscape shots, etc. It’s true that during a lot of THE MASTER the 70mm feels somewhat arbitrary and much of feels like it could very well have been shot on 35mm, something about the unnecessary aspect of the 70mm makes it completely necessary (although certain shots, like when he approaches the boat, I doubt could have been as detailed in 35mm). I think Danny was on to something when he brought up the “fleshy materiality” of the close-ups…

    The opening is really impressive – amazing shot of the water, partially obscured shot of Freddie’s helmeted head, shot of Freddie, ape-like, in a tree chopping down coconuts. You don’t often come across shorthand like that these days.

  • hocetheo

    I think the film is a lot more focused than what those who seem to have problems with it are accusing it of being (And boring? Shame!). To me, the relationship between Dodd and Freddie is unquestionably the central crux of the story, much more so than Freddie’s crazed sexual frustration/disorder? (interesting that I’ve yet to read a review that even mentions Freddie’s revealing of a past sexual relationship with his aunt), which is maybe given equal attention as his alcoholism. I experienced the film as a beautiful tragedy—it was incredibly moving, despite the rigorously formal filmmaking—the story of a great and fiery friendship that became an impossibility because of the insurmountable flaws of the parties involved. It’s like an American Pride and Prejudice, substituted by id and ego and ended with a break-up rather than a proposal.

    I also don’t understand the questioning of PTA’s use of the 70mm format. Yes, he’s using it in a non-traditional way, and he certainly could have made life a lot easier for him and his crew if he’d just shot it on 35, but look at the quality of the image! As soon as the first shot popped onto the screen I knew it was well worth the trouble, and as others have mentioned, the close-ups are just something else. I say all this having seen Samsara just under a week ago—somehow I was more impressed with the quality and scope of The Master’s much more mundane/smaller-in-scale images.

  • Duncan Gray

    @ Ignatiy

    Another excellent, extremely well-written review! I agree with most of what you say, but I don’t think you give the film enough credit when you say it’s about so little, or that it doesn’t follow through on its themes.

    And seeing The Master today, it struck me as a film far more about themes than anything else: it’s much stronger and more coherent as allegory/symbolism than as drama, and accordingly (like Tree of Life) is likely to piss off a comfortable majority of people who go to see it, who were expecting a drama about scientology (or at least a drama, period). I shudder to think at the number of psychoanalytic theses that will be written in the film’s wake, but that’s the reading that it lent itself to, at least for me.

    So PSH is not simply the leader of a cult (the way Tom Cruise is simply a sex guru in Magnolia) but an epic symbol of authority in general and fatherhood in particular. Freddie begins as raging id, is first given a name by the film when he falls in with Master, slowly learns to control himself, has moments of rebellion and doubt (at the precise moment when Dodd is given a name himself, knocking the Master off his authoritative perch), eventually finds that the security of the Master comes with a lack of freedom, and leaves to strike out on his own, having sublimated his id (or at least made it less anti-social) the best that he can. I found this arc to very direct, enclosed, and not listless or petering-out. To say that the film is just about Freddie’s libido, while not inaccurate, ignores the genuinely grand universal, emotional, and psychological implications that come with sex. (How this narrative fits with post-war America is a subject for further study).

    As for whether or not this makes the film a masterpiece/great film, I still have my doubts—the best films can excel as drama as well as allegory. In fact, you could argue that the central conflict and rebellion (the attempted suppression of animal urges) is an artier, more pretentious version of, say, Island of Lost Souls, which is half as long and much more fun. But The Master is still some of the best cinema I’ve gotten to see all year. While I missed it in 70mm (alas), the fact that something this bizarre and prone to abstraction is playing at the local California multiplex is something I’ll celebrate.

  • stefanpavlovic

    I love that the film has so many different responses, loving, hating, confusion, etc. Most people say they have to see it again, my self included. I was amazed by the performances of both Phoenix and Hoffman. Does anyone know more about the techniques and approaches that Anderson uses while working with actors? How does he get such performances, every time?

  • H. Paul Moon

    Just a minor technical correction, of the sort that you would probably only read at a community like MUBI. The 70mm format is actually known for causing cinematographers to wrestle with its characteristic shallow focus properties, which is simply the product of lens physics. So, great directors like Robert Wise have actually used gizmos like an “anamorphic split diopter” to increase the depth-of-field back to reasonable levels. (This is of course in contrast to the thankfully dying breed of Vimeo videastes who believe that insufferably shallow focus with manically poor focus pulling looks edgy and hip.) Thus there is the argument that PTA and his crew didn’t rise to the challenge of the format, fighting against its characteristic shallow focus in that classical fight which cinematographers have taken on for decades.

    Of course, sadly this might be the last conventional narrative feature film ever shot in 70mm. (I saw it at the AFI Silver Theater in Washington, D.C.)

  • adrian

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the most trying and go-nowhere sequences of the film: the Doris flashback, the ‘pick-a-point’ game,’ and the entire England finale. Strange how much more languid and useless those felt after the first hour of drifting.

    I disagree that the film’s center is Freddie’s libido. It seems to go at great lengths not to have one, and his libido is just as prominent as alcohol and Freddie’s weird alchemy.

    The back-and-forth motion may well be the film’s strongest visual and narrative motif: the shot-reverse-shot dialogs you pointed out, the wall-to-window sequences, Freddie’s drifting to and from the Cause.

    Anderson needed to fulfill this spatial metaphor in order to tie up the film, rather than keep the metronome going. Either Freddie should have left entirely, or drifted in too close (certainly what happens in There Will Be Blood).

  • Roscoe Means

    drink plenty of coffee or tea before viewing this film. I nodded off just about three quarters of the way through. I had a feeling ahead of sitting in my seat what I was in for since I was not a fan of There Will Be Blood. However I was at the very least expecting to see some great camera work and some beautiful scenery of 70mm proportion. This was my biggest let down. I was pretty satisfied w/ Joaquin’s performance and didn’t mind the emptiness or hollowness of the story, I don’t really care about the Scientology conspiracies either. I just wanted to see a film, and leave the cinema with a feeling other than that of I need more coffee.

  • JackChandler45

    In the end who is the bigger fool, the educated master spinning unbelievable tales or the mentally unstable chasing his natural desires? Freddie cherishes their friendship, and wants Dodd to accept him for what he is. Dodd only wants the potential in Freddie, and when it is decided that the potential is gone he swears off his former pal for good (possibly). Oh, that lone tear when Freddie realizes it is Dodd who is the larger fool. Beautiful film.

  • thelostboy

    I always look forward to a Paul Thomas Anderson film but this one was a disappointment. We’ve become used to seeing the big performance by the male star but we go to the movies for more than this and as wonderful as the film’s three main performers are, Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Dern and Amy Adams cannot disguise that we are missing the main element that makes movie-going so compelling – meaning. What is this movie about? I can’t help but feel that Amy Adams character, Peggy, was right as she said many times, “this relationship is pointless!”
    Why was Lancaster Dodd so interested in Freddie Quell? Was it a latent homosexual desire that he had but was afraid to express? Did he see in Freddie a close resemblance of the homo sapien because of his unusual stance, lack of self-awareness and conscience and, therefore, a perfect model to test his ideas on? Was Dodd a beleagured man who sought refuge in his relationship with Freddie and his potent hooch and helped him forget? I could go on…
    Nevertheless, I came away impressed by the art of cinema and the commitment of his actors to produce great work. Whaever the weaknesses in their script, these actors made every effort to mask them so that we could come away thinking about the kind of people who can become so fascinated by an individual who utters such rubbish that they become his acolytes and defenders.

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