I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.
The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film. If you look at my recent top 100 films list you’ll find he has 3 movies on it, two of which are in the top 5. I’m a fan. He makes films about people and the strange situations they get themselves into. The Master takes a turn away from the heavily plotted films he started with into a miasma of control and impulse. It is a foreboding, swampy film with very little plot outside getting two intense men together and playing them off each other. There is no mystery to be solved nor destination to be reached. It is an experiment. Can the cult leader turn a man of impulse into a man of pure intellect? Well, it’s hard to say, which is what’s so intriguing about it.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie, a man who served his time in the pacific theater during WWII and comes back to find there isn’t a place for him. He’s drifting from place to place, job to job, woman to woman. His only companion is his ability to turn all sorts of chemicals into a powerful elixir that may cause death alongside its intoxication. After fleeing one job he finds a boat hosting a party. He stows away and finds that the boat is a kind of retreat for a group of people that follow The Cause, an idea created by Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s Lancaster Dodd and, possibly, Amy Adams‘ Peggy Dodd, his wife. It’s a kind of pseudo-religion that believes in a soul which carries on throughout the ages and galaxy. Reincarnation, basically, and there’s a lot of therapy that tries to get to the past lives people might have lived. The central idea is to deny any emotional or impulsive feelings in favor of a truly intellectual pursuit. This is, of course, a ridiculous idea and the Dodds’ attempts to indoctrinate Freddie are variously unsuccessful, despite Freddie’s best efforts. It’s not long until Freddie’s impulses begin to take over again and he lashes out violently and sexually. Then more things happen and there is, like in all other buddy films, a time of separation. It seems like Lancaster and Freddie will never reconcile. Will they, won’t they?
If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.
There are various ways of interpreting the film, an ambiguity which seems to have turned off a good portion of the audience. It allows for many interpretations, or no interpretations at all. It is a perfectly fine movie if you just see what happens as what happens, like I described above. There are, however, some interesting conversations to be had about what each of these characters could be representations or embodiments of. There’s a popular theory going around that ascribes the properties of the id, ego, and superego upon Freddie, Peggy, and Lancaster respectively. It works, I think, with Freddie being all feeling and no foresight and Lancaster being all thought and no feeling and Peggy going between them and bringing them together (or pushing them apart). Another theory a friend of mine told me was that The Cause is right and that Freddie is the first man, Adam. The first scene shows him miming sex with a sand recreation of a woman, and a later scene shows him reconsidering her and remaking her after his destructive acts tear her apart. It would make sense that the first man would be all impulse and feeling, and if The Cause is right, that would carry on throughout all of his incarnations. Of course, this would also prove the other part of The Cause, the elimination of emotions, absurd, but I think Anderson’s sense of humor would fit that nicely. The film itself draws attention to another, more obvious interpretation. Freddie is no more than a dog, he lives in the moment and has very little in terms of memory or planning for the future. Lancaster, then, would be the literal master, trying to heel and control Freddie by training the feral-ness out of him. Freddie’s rages are not unlike a rabid dog lashing out at anything and everything it sees, and the best Lancaster can do is direct those rages towards things that might want to hurt The Cause. It’s self preservation by way of human conditioning. And there’s the constant references to being adrift. Anderson returns to a shot of the wake of a boat over and over again, any time the characters move around, compelled by outside forces or themselves to change their location or their ideas about themselves. It’s, in this case, a film about what it means to be a human and how we must define ourselves or be lost to the countless elements that would bend us to their wills.
But all of these theories are kind of nebulous. They float above and under and within the film, which is a solid and technically astounding work of art. Much as been made of the film being mostly shot on 65mm film, and even the digital projection I saw (though I’m hoping my local 70mm capable theater will get a print at some point!) is a beautiful thing to behold. Anderson is the best director we have working today, and his rigid formalism of recent years echoes Stanley Kubrick’s masterful control of his frame, each shot is set up meticulously and marvelously. Gone are the long tracking shots of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, swooping around corners and pulling in tight on the huge casts of those films. Now there are three main characters, and their long shots aren’t so kinetic. One, maybe the best shot of the year, is a long take of Freddie answering questions. The camera doesn’t move, doesn’t push into his face or pull out or swivel to see Lancaster’s interviewing. It sits and watches. This, of course, is motivated by the character, who has been implored to answer as many questions as he can without blinking. If he can’t blink, then Anderson won’t cut away. It creates a marvelous tension and Phoenix’s performance is more than enough to match. He contorts his body throughout the film, and is nearly unrecognizable as a man uncomfortable in his body and the world at large. Hoffman, too, gives an amazing performance, though his isn’t as transformative as Phoenix’s. Adams does well with the little she has to do. It’s a key role in the film that skirts around the edges of the central relationship, pushing and pulling and manipulating them to serve her own interests. The script is, as always, amazing, full of great dialogue and superb scenes. I said above that the film is mostly plotless, which shouldn’t be and isn’t a criticism. It’s just different, and it suits the film just fine.
If we meet again, in the next life, you will be my sworn enemy and I will show you no mercy.
The Master is a difficult film, but a rewarding one if you have the patience and a willingness to go along with what you’re given. It’s beautiful and should not be missed on the big screen.