I knew I was going to have to see The Master more than once. It had been five years since Paul Thomas Anderson released one of the best films of the last 25 years in There Will Be Blood, and there would thus be a resultant level of expectation difficult for any film to overcome. Add to that the fact that Anderson is perhaps my favorite living filmmaker and that he had, in his nearly twenty-year career, amassed a perfect cinematic track record, and my first viewing would be largely dedicated to purging any preconceived notions of what his new film was to be, so that I could then come back at it with a second screening and approach it for what it actually was.
What it is is a singular moviegoing experience that is as frustrating as it is rewarding, and that I will be struggling with for quite some time.
I saw The Master twice in as many days, and while I still don't think I've wrapped my head completely around it, it's all I've been able to think about since. Elliptical in its structure and enigmatic almost to a fault, The Master is a film that refuses to meet its audience halfway, and in the current cinematic landscape that quality, if nothing else, is reason enough to celebrate it.
But there is so much else.
The film tells the story of Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix as a sexually voracious raw nerve. Freddie is discharged from Naval duty after the end of World War II (his tenure, at least in the waning days, seems to have been spent mainly concocting various self-ablating libations and sexually pleasing sand sculptures) and spends the post-war days roaming from job to job, desperately trying to find his place in a world within which he seems decidedly unfit to inhabit. As is well-known by know, Quell eventually falls under the influence of the enigmatic, avuncular cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and his nascent belief system, known as The Cause - a character and collective that bare more than a few similarities to L. Ron Hubbard and the pre-Scientology Dianetics ethos.
I should break in here to tell you that anybody going into this movie expecting an expose on Hubbard's now-ubiquitous sect will be sorely disappointed. In fact, the movie is not at all about Scientology so much as it uses its early days and foundations as the inspiration for story of The Cause, which serves as thematic backdrop to the relationship that develops between the two lead characters. It is as much about The Cause [and by extension, Scientology] as Boogie Nights was about the porn industry. All expectations should be appropriately adjusted. In fact, it's likely inretrospect that all of the pre-release hype about the film's supposed subject matter - and the reports of the original production being shut down once the Scientology lawyers got a whiff of its intentions, inducing major script rewrites - shaped expectations to fit around a potential movie that was never going to exist.
Phoenix gives the kind of performance that, especially coming off the heels of his self-destructive performance art curio "I'm Not There," makes you worry about his well-being in the best possible way. He seems to quite literally not fit within his own skin - face constantly clenched, back bent in a Quasimodoaic twist. Freddie Quell is perfectly encapsulated for us in the film's opening minutes - the churning wake of a boat surging through some vast, indiscernible ocean cutting directly to shot of a semi-obstructed Quell donning his combat helmet and waiting with clenched, ever-shifting eyes for imminent attack, a man constantly adrift in and at war with the world. Hoffman, by contrast, really had me worried at first. When Quell is led into the cabin of the man at command of the ship on which he has stowed away and we get our introduction to Lancaster Dodd, Hoffman's performance came across as affected and hammy until I slapped myself in the head and realized that was the point. The moments in which Dodd does let his guard down - either when one-on-one with Freddie or when faced with even the hint of questioning of or sedition against his ideas - we see the real Dodd emerge, a frightened child who has done everything in his power to build himself into a living embodiment of his oft-repeated exortation that "man is not an animal." The central scene, and perhaps most important shot in the entire picture, is a jailhouse tableau in which each man confronts the other with the ugliest possible insight into the other's true state, screaming from their own individual cages as they throw each other's bitter truths into their faces ("You're whole family hates you!" "Oh yeah, well who likes you other than me, you little piece of shit!"). It is the scene that cements their bond. They have each found someone who can see through to the truth of their respective beings - that Freddy is a primal force bent towards self-annihilation and that Dodd is a complete phony - and this honesty, though never really able to be spoken again, becomes not only the spine of their relationship, but the very wedge that is eventually driven so deep that it drives them apart forever.
This relationship, and its ultimate futility, forms the emotional core of The Master, such that one is allowed to be gleaned from what is on the surface certainly Anderson's chilliest picture to date. The movie is crafted with such assured confidence that there is no suspicion that any plot points skipped over or emotional beats un-emphasized were left out due to ineptitude or laziness - and indeed, Anderson has proven himself to be a filmmaker of such skill that any omissions made are certainly to be those made with very careful artistic consideration. It's not hard to feel like there are a few missing pieces whose absence is designed to keep the audience at arm's reach, yet any such lack is certainly central to the main idea of the film. Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd are two men who in their own distinct ways desperately need each other, even if theirs is a friendship that could never hope to be sustained. The Master may ultimately be about how the failure to truly connect with other human beings drives us to seek a greater meaning beyond our imperfect, ineffectual selves. To this end it is entirely fitting that, while there exists some unspoken bond between Dodd and Quell, it is something that can never be emotionally consummated, and will always exist as no more than the potential to connect. Anderson is trying to dramatize something that is very difficult to dramatize, and he's doing it with cinematic signifiers that while ultimately appropriate nonetheless refuse to give the viewer any overt help.
The movie builds to what may be the only moment of pure connection between the two men as Freddie, teary-eyed and smiling, listens to Dodd singing his farewell. It calls back to how Freddie's true love, whom he abandoned for the war and never went back to reclaim until it was too late, serenaded him before he shipped out. It is a moment made all the more bittersweet by the fact that Freddy understands that Dodd is a fraud and that he must leave him, and that Dodd seems resigned to being entombed within his fictive faith. And yet you can make the argument that Freddy has been at least somewhat bettered by his time within The Cause, just as you could presume that Dodd would be better off if he had used Freddie's untamable example as proof that perhaps in the end we are just animals and maybe we'd be better off if any effort at self-improvement took that truth into account.
There are two recurring motifs that run through the film - the wake of a boat on the ocean and the form of a naked woman made of sand. The first of many failed consummations happens with the sand maiden - Freddie fingers it for what starts off as a joke but goes on just a hair past a beat too long - and in the end, after leaving The Cause behind and jokingly using its tactics on a woman he picks up at the bar (importantly, the only sexual intercourse we see him have in the film, even though he has been led through the entire movie by his dick) and having achieved some kind of temporary peace, the last image we have is of Phoenix lying next to the same sculpted form, arm draped around a moment that will eventually be swept away forever. It is a perfect counter-point to the opening image of Freddie, once at war with existence and now perhaps at peace with its tempestuousness, and is the perfect place to be left by a film that is all about the tenuousness of all human connection.
The Master is an important, vibrant, necessary movie, so rich in performance and theme that I haven't even mentioned the 70mm photography, so sharp and precise that it overwhelms you with detail (it truly makes the case that the future of cinematic projection lies not in the flat, sectional planes of digital 3D but in the crisp resolution of large-format film photography. And the fact that it is all in service to what is ultimately a character study rather than a traditional blockbuster/epic is all the more inspiring - it's true emotional spectacle). I haven't even mentioned all of the performances, leaving out such necessary contributions as Amy Adams, who as Dodd's wife Peggy portrays a woman of deceptive feminine bulwarking who at key points reveals the true depths of her influence and control of all factors of her husband's life and work. Or Kevin J. O'Connor, who could make himself a hell of a career out of being haplessly beat around by unhinged leading men in PT Anderson movies.
I will avoid the imploring of the hack within me to anoint it a Master-piece or a Master-fully realized American vision. It will suffice to say that anyone who cares about movies as a serious art form, and who has a vested interest in the future of American cinema as same, owes it to themselves to see it, and in the biggest theater possible.