Paul Thomas Anderson is the sort of artist that attracts obsessed fans. Artists with distinct styles—whether they are musicians, painters, or, as in this case, filmmakers—are the sort of people to develop these cults. The Church of Paul Thomas Anderson began with his debut--Hard Eight or Sydney, depending on who you ask—but it exploded with the stylistic Boogie Nights and the ambitious Magnolia. With his most recent films, he focuses his narratives to one or two main characters, moving away from the huge ensembles that were his forte. The cast of characters that front his 2000s films are cults of personality in their own right: pudding-obsessed Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love (Adam Sandler), oil tycoon Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (Daniel Day-Lewis), and now wandering sailor Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in The Master.
With The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson has made his most divisive film yet. The unanimous critical success and numerous award nominations and wins of There Will Be Blood made it seem as if could do no wrong. When The Master started rolling out its trailers, Anderson’s cult had already heralded the film a masterpiece. It wasn’t hard to see why. The trailers were masterfully cut, with tense close-ups of Phoenix, in-character, babbling channeled intensity. When the film was released, however, opinion divided. There was a love camp and a hate camp. Those in between were merely confounded by the film. Now, according to Rotten Tomatoes, The Master sits pretty at 85% positive reviews. But the backlash came quickly among the internet world and film-goers. The Master opened to record numbers when it screened, but when it grew into a wider release, the film bombed, becoming one of Anderson’s least-grossing films. The once predicted favorite for awards time had become an awards black sheep to prognosticators. Many claim the film is now overrated and already-forgotten. Those still championing the film were now labeled part of Paul Thomas Anderson’s cult, and written-off.
So is The Master great, shit, or something in between?
For the reasons outlined here, The Master is a masterpiece, unequaled in 2012[i], and also Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film to date. Am I, dear reader, a part of his cult? That is for you to decide. I welcome the debate.
Firstly, Paul Thomas Anderson has worked with Director of Photography (DP) Robert Elswit from Hard Eight to There Will Be Blood, the last of which deservedly earning Elswit a Cinematography Oscar through his masterful creation of stark landscapes for Daniel Plainview’s oilfields. Now, Anderson is working with a new DP: Mihai Malaimare Jr. Malaimare creates, while shooting in 70mm, luscious recreations of post-war America[ii] for Freddie Quell to wander aimlessly through. Whether Malaimare is shooting a close-up of Freddie’s scarred and crevassed face, or shooting Freddie running through a cabbage field, or Freddie and Lancaster Dodd riding their motorcycles in the desert, the scenes are simultaneously vast and claustrophobic. This contradiction leads to the film’s biggest knock: it is too vague.
The Master is full of contradictions and hazy plotting. Freddie’s story seems to be going one direction, but his misadventures never come to fruition. He seems to represent the monster, while Lancaster seems to represent the lion tamer. But then at times their roles ambiguously shift, where Freddie seems to be the one in control. What is the point of this? Why are the characters static? Why does nothing happen?!?
The answers are actually rather simple: the film is not about revelations but about lack of revelations. Also, the muddied plot is a mirror of Freddie Quell and an example of form fitting function. In There Will Be Blood, the focused narrative derived from Daniel Plainview’s obsessive focus. Anderson has proved he can make that movie. In ways, The Master is the opposite of There Will Be Blood. Instead of writing and directing a film about a Daniel Plainview, the wandering, lost Freddie Quell is our wedge into the story, however frustrating a fact that may be to some viewers. Aided only by a constantly forward-churning score by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, Anderson is following the most elusive big screen character of 2012. And people are infuriated by this.
Focused narrative is oftentimes necessary to keep the attention of most film-goers, whether they are critical or casual. That makes Argo a big hit. And Lincoln. And There Will Be Blood back in 2007. Some films are meant to be contemplative, such as The Seventh Seal. Superhero films are meant to be bombastically action-packed, like The Avengers. Some films are meant to be light fun, such as The Artist. Anything but being a wandering mess would have hindered The Master, because as-is, it perfectly depicts the sort of post-war feeling of a WWII solider. Again, form fits function. Freddie was in the navy, mixing more and more dangerous cocktails for himself and his fellow soldiers. He lived a sex-obsessed bachelor’s life, recognizing that he was missing the basic foundation of human existence. He misses his sweetheart, the love of his life, because he made the choice to be in the Navy serving the good ole U.S. of A. One of the film’s best scenes, Lancaster Dodd asks Freddie a series of questions (which The Cause calls Processing) that penetrate into Freddie’s soul. The film slows its pace here, and Milaimare’s close-ups of Freddie and Lancaster illustrate their intensity and focus as Freddie has to stop living like a vagabond and anchor himself for at least a moment, long enough to admit the sexual abuse—even though he “liked” it—that he had been through at a young age. These details tell the viewers about Freddie’s life. They may continue in their disgust of Freddie’s actions, but the reasons behind them become clear here.
And those reasons should not be forgotten as the film continues, and Freddie shifts in and out of his violent and lustful urges. He wants to fuck everyone in sight. He sits, imagining the women at a party naked, as if nothing is strange. But he also does his best to be a part of The Cause, continuing to fail time after time to fit in. He violently defends Lancaster from the man’s only son, from the police, from those who doubt The Cause. Lancaster does not put up with this, yet he tries to tame the beast. He puts him through test after test, making Freddie to pace back and forth like a tiger behind bars at the zoo, all the while not realizing the utter futility of his indoctrination. Religion, whether it is Scientology or Christianity, cannot lasso a man as wild and individualistic as Freddie, for better or for worse. Just like love, or home, Freddie is without faith. He will never have it.
This works because of the performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and especially Joaquin Phoenix. Adams is subtle and powerful. Hoffman is able to teeter between explosive anger to gentle family man to charismatic leader at the drop of a hat, without the hint of breaking character. And then there is Joaquin Phoenix, who embodies his character—the twisted, individualistic beast that is Freddie Quell—in a league of his own year. Daniel Day-Lewis redefines Lincoln by inhabiting the historic figure, but Phoenix creates an entire new character from Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay and his own mind. Phoenix lost weight. He developed a gait to how he walked, completely contrasting the way he usually walks. He is consistently hunched and craven. He changed the appearance of his face based on pure will. Some critics have accused Phoenix of playing himself. But that is ridiculous: he doesn’t look himself here. Watching Gladiator or Walk The Line will show how different this character is from the rest of his repertoire.
Freddie is not a great person—in ways he can be a monstrous figure. But he is more identifiable than Daniel Plainview was in There Will Be Blood. He is simple in his desires to live out his role as the “id” compared to Dodd’s “super ego”[iii], but his origins are where his complexities lie. Why does he fail to connect fully with The Cause? Why did the war or his past sexual encounters lead him to be such an aimless man? Freddie doesn’t ever find the answers that satisfy him, which may frustrate the viewer, but it is true to his character. One positive impact Freddie the character has is that he is the force that dictates the tempo of the movie’s rhythms, only quelled by Johnny Greenwood’s potentially award winning score of clarinets and strings that simultaneously accent Freddie and work against him. Again, The Master is full of contradictions that dance with one another to dizzying effect.
So The Master has some of the best performances of the year. It has elite cinematography, score, production design, and costuming. The screenplay will likely be nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars based on its ambitious linking of its pacing to its protagonist? Is the stance against The Master based on the misconception that it does not have a plot—a beginning, middle end, climax, denouement?
There is actually a climax of the film, and a denouement, regardless of some criticism to the contrary. Freddie chooses not to be a part of The Cause, and is cursed to continue wandering. Religion is not for him, nothing probably is, since no one can truly understand him after the war. He connected with Lancaster Dodd, loved him even, but he is not a member of his cause. After Freddie tries to take his fate, and drives away Dodd’s Cause on the motorcycle, he finds that there is still no world for him. So he continues his wandering, and dreams of Dodd. When he finally meets The Master again, he sees that The Cause has taken off, and it is not for him, with its walls and amazing thrones[iv] that The Master sits upon. In their final confrontation, which plays more like a weepy goodbye[v], the two recognize that they are stark opposites. Dodd muses that in future lives, according to his religion, they will be grand enemies, forever and ever. This seems silly, and it is, but it is his ardent belief and he believes it. Freddie’s opinion is more ambiguous, but he certainly leaves the church. As he continues his meanderings, probably forever. He eventually stumbles upon and sleeps with a woman while in England. He repeats those once sacred Processing techniques during intercourse as a way to get off, though he may be using it earnestly, the heresy is evident by his final sacrilegious line: “It fell out!” laughing, referring to his penis during sex.
And there you have it. Freddie Quell finds his calling: scatological humorist.
I give The Master 10 out of 10.
[i] I have not seen the following critically adored films, because they have now shown where I live: Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables, The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey, Django Unchained, Amour, or Holy Motors. I want to see them all, obviously, and plan to as soon as I can. Expect reviews in the coming weeks.
[ii] Production Design (David Crank, Jack Fisk) and Costuming (Mark Bridges) are top notch here as well. This film takes place in the 1950s and is true to its time period. There is not a detail that feels out of place and the details accumulate to a masterfully to allow the actors to feel real to those watching the film.
[iii] Or is Dodd the ego and his wife the super ego? Oh these questions are the stuff that great after-movie conversations are made of.
[iv] Appropriate that the elusive Mrs. Dodd (Amy Adams) appears as a footnote here. She is the sneaky, true leader of The Cause, acting as a Lady MacBeth, always with her voice in Dodd’s ear. In one infamous scene, she gives Dodd a hand job while telling him damn well what path The Cause should take. Freddie shares the same weakness: sex. Dodd hides this, though, in public. His wife wants to make sure of it. It should be noted that Adams is great in this role, totally showing that many times through her career she has been typecast as the good girl. She can play manipulative politician’s wife believability and with master class nuance.
[v] “I want to get you on a small boat to China.”