The Master is many things, but the only safe and sure descriptor I can come up with is “mis-marketed”. Explored pre-release, it was a film about L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. Indeed, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd is a facsimile of L. Ron Hubbard, and one can certainly draw comparisons to the much-maligned religion (some would not agree with calling it that). But Anderson’s film is not only about Dodd or the “cultlike” group he leads. It’s a much more ambitious, confounding affair, highly impersonal, yet enrapturing. Technically it centers around a religious cult, but focusing on this controversial aspect of the film does it a grave disservice. On the plus side, it allows me this one measly paragraph to save myself from not saying anything I feel confident about throughout the review. This comment about the mis-marketing of the film ends the part of the review where I’m relatively sure I agree with what I’m writing – the rest of the film, as I think Anderson wants, is me entering the wild and hoping to come out the other side.
After that bit of ominous foreshadowing, I’ll try to explain the functional “plot” of The Master, which for all the talk about the film’s intentional difficulty, is actually quite straightforward. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), upon returning home from WWII, finds himself lost and unsure of his future. He doesn’t know where he fits in, and he slowly but surely comes to find a home of sorts in “The Cause”, a cultish religious group headed by the enigmatic Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) that remains, to Freddie, obscure but undeniably appealing. Quell has many objections, and the film plays out on multiple levels from here. Conventionally, we have something of a quiet battle between him and Dodd , but more potently the film details Quell’s own internal struggle to find a home in a society that has left him out to dry.
The Master is not, as today’s commentators would want you to think, really about Scientology. It is about many things, one of them simply being Anderson messing with us, but above all, it is about World War II. It is a film about the effects of the war on returning soldiers estranged from society, and a commentary on a society that pits individual against community. Freddie Quell, played with pinpoint, angrily weary, clinical opacity by Joaquin Phoenix, is not an easy character to connect with. He’s distant, passive, and doesn’t say much. He’s a lost soul, having recently returned home from the navy during World War II and unsure of what to do with himself or how to reconnect with society. One of the only scenes we see him having any fun, or any sense of identity, is during the war on a beach when he has fake sex with a female sand sculpture. In this scene, we have two things shoved together: the thought of joy in a sort of wild man’s asocial playground, namely war, and the thought of this being only possible by virtue of no one else being around except the other men accompanying Freddie on a journey to an asocial hell which wants to be a heaven. His joy comes from not belonging to society, for being a rebel striking out at essentially nothing, but doing it with passion. But when he returns home to a semblance of “society”, he finds his wings clipped and wanders around aimlessly (there’s a none too subtle nod to this in a scene where he repeatedly walks back and forth through a room monotonously for hours). The sand figure is not a female, of course, but it is Freddie’s construction or vision of a female as someone more passive than he. It is also the only thing Freddie can handle throughout the film for the very reason that it does not truly entail him engaging with living society at all.
And then there is Lancaster Dodd, played like a walking conflict with equal parts enigmatic coldness and fiery fury by the titanic, turbulent Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He’s the only person who seems to take interest in Freddie. Initially, we see him as we would any zealous, dogmatic leader: passionate but full of himself. But he as much as Freddie has been let down by a society he feels distant from, and which feels distant from itself. He is someone in search of a family, so much so to the point where he creates a functional one for himself in The Cause. He’s an extraordinarily convincing and enigmatic figure, not quite a villain, but someone we are innately suspicious of. The film’s attitude is rightly ambiguous toward whether Dodd truly believes what he preaches; we get skepticism and passion, belief and doubt, all in one. But whether he believes it doesn’t matter as much as his profound loneliness and the world he’s constructed around him to fill that gap. In presenting a view of him more balanced than indictment, the film explores social institutions like cults not as farces but as serious issues which arise due to complicated reasons. Furthermore, it explores them as manifestations of a society conflicted between order and chaos and trying desperately to reconcile the two, arguing, in its spare time, that despite whatever airs of community we put on, we are all ultimately enjoined by one thing and one thing only: the perpetual nature of human loneliness.
Despite what you may think, the film does have other characters, most significantly Amy Adam’s Peggy Dodd, Lancaster’s newly married and pregnant daughter. In her, we see the battle that plays out between Dodd and Quell at its most complicated. She loves her father but, as we glimpse in her eyes, she doesn’t always believe what he tells her. Perhaps like him though, she doesn’t need to – The Cause may be more about family and belonging than the nature of the family or its beliefs.
In the conventional sense of “character” which films usually pursue, in which characters are individuals with defining traits we are meant to come to understand, one would be forgiven for thinking we learn nothing about these three through the course of the film. But that, above all, is the point. None of these characters know exactly who they are – they’re defined by struggle and indecision. They are poised at the edge of their selves and don’t know where to proceed, much like the America of the film’s enigmatic mid-century, a nation of people now at the center of the world and unsure of where to go. In a sense, then, the characters approximate types – Quell is an amorphous rebel too tired to even care to rebel anymore, and Dodd is the ultimate Man, a moral authority who constructs a society rather than opposing it. The relationship between the two, the film’s center, has been called a “father-son” one, but I see something more complicated. They exist in perpetual conflict, sure, but they also complete each other. Quell sees in Dodd a means to join a community, a group, to fit in, and Dodd legitimizes himself, proves his worth, by courting Quell and grooming him to fit in. They are both outsiders in a sense, and they are innately drawn to each other for this reason. Dodd superficially bears the titular airs of leadership, but the two are equally each other’s masters. It’s something of a battle of wills, but the two are as much battling it their selves as each other, approaching in each other what they are too afraid to in their own bodies. They are attempting, above all, to find their-selves and to live out the other side of the coin they occupy. Dodd, like Quell, finds himself on the tail end of a conflict that made America a superpower, struggling, like Quell, to figure out what America means for him. If Quell is the rebel and Dodd the moral authority, they are ultimately two sides of the same coin.
Perhaps the film is so frustrating to audiences because it has no catharsis, unlike Anderson’s critically adored previous feature, There Will be Blood. The film’s last shot closely mirrors its opening moments, bringing the film full circle in an enigmatic, enlightening, and ultimately hopeless way. The circularity is fitting for a film about people spinning their wheels against each other and going nowhere, presenting the main character quite literally back where he started. By the end, Quell is having sex with a girl he barely knows while imagining himself back on the beach with the female sand sculpture, away from human contact and left to his own asocial bliss. He’s back where he started, out at sea and away from society, but in another way, perhaps he’s learned much, too much, about himself and has been unable to handle it. He is of course now superficially a part of society, stuck in its doldrums and mundanity, but he’s off imagining a fantasy elsewhere. Late in the film, Quell finally exhibits a will to act on his own, but doing so manifests in him driving off and leaving the film temporarily. He literally, in a diegetic sense, drives off to the film’s unseen nowhere. Soon enough, his newfound zeal and energy brought on by frustration transition back into a seeming aimlessness; the only option he has is to leave for an asocial nowhere, and leave for good. The film, here, more than anywhere, posits a shared human loneliness and a fundamental inability for people to mesh, a parasitic relationship whereby people need society to function, and yet cannot function without dreams of themselves elsewhere.
In another sense, people may have difficulty with the film because it intentionally keeps itself at arm’s length, most of all in how it approaches its characters. Throughout, we learn more about the characters through what they don’t do and don’t say than anything they do. This is intentional; the film isn’t about individual action. It’s about the opposite, a passivity brought on by loneliness and by a need to belong. If the film keeps itself at arm’s length, that is precisely the point: we want to belong to the film, like its characters want to belong to something within the film, but we, like they, find ourselves coming up empty every time. And they aren’t characters as we would like them to be. Dodd and Quell are both deeply human and entirely extra-human flags set up to reflect a sort of ultimate duality: of the individual and society, of the rebel and the Man, and above all, of America and America, struggling to come to terms with itself and figure out its internal identity on the tail end of a conflict which forever opened it up to the World for all to see.
Now, staging characters as types or symbols in this way is dangerous and usually a recipe for failure. It takes a very good filmmaker to take characters and create real people, and it takes a great, difficult, and challenging one to tempt the odds and to take real people and make them characters once again.
Luckily, Paul Thomas Anderson is known for being challenging and difficult. He also happens to be great, if only so at supremely messing with our heads. He is a meticulous auteur, constructing his films with the most painterly of brushes . Here, while we are left to puzzle out the emotions of his main characters, he’s busy creating them in us as viewers. He slowly destroys our semblance of belonging by constructing an intentionally cold, distant film that keeps us at arm’s length, making us feel like his characters struggling to belong by holding us away from the very film we want to belong to.
Sometimes we wonder if he’s spinning his wheels just to mess with us (he displays a knack, for instance, for not only separating scenes which would thematically fit, something not terribly uncommon, but for connecting scenes which seem to have nothing to do with one another, very uncommon). But let no one say he does this formlessly: indeed, the film is all about form and structure, with characters superficially trying to fit in and struggling on the inside. Thus, Quell gets his first job back on land as a family photographer, literally taking images of people he composes for maximum symmetry and neat order in an attempt to find composure in his life by composing others. Of course, his internal reckless dis-abandon wins out, and Dodd steps in to more forcefully attempt to same, to mold the savage beast he is innately drawn to in scenes that hold not only father-son but homosexual overtones. Behind the scenes though, Anderson and his cinematographer Mihai Malairmare Jr are doing exactly what both Quell and Dodd attempt to do: to provide form to the formless by rigorously composing the film and finding symmetry in what he innately acknowledges is disorder – thus the film is rendered circular by its similar opening and closing imagery and his painterly, even artificial brush which strives to compose something with the symmetrical beauty of a society trying, above all, to appear ordered. Of course, Anderson’s film is an attempt to draw out the tensions of form stretched angrily over a formless society, so, innately, the rigorous form he gives the film seems an act of ironic self-commentary. He is creating the very image he acknowledges is innately false.
Maybe this is where the central tension of the film finds its footing, or loses it (I’m not sure those are two different things anymore). We want a film, as we want a society, to feel cohesive. Anderson is making a film about the failure of the latter and he creates, at once, a film which fails the former (in the way it renders disjointed what we want to be connected and vice versa) and the success of the former (in his painterly composure, something which perhaps overlaps with the former). The former too is enhanced by the work of one Johnny Greenwood on loan from Radiohead who here coaxes all manner of wonderfully disturbed, sly, pained, and oppressive sounds out of his experimental guitar which intentionally struggle to find a place in “logic” to match characters struggling with the same.
All of this comes together for the grand task of making me scratch my head. I’m still not yet sure I get it all, or if there’s something to get, but in a purely affective sense it hits its mark time and time again – this is a dangerous, scary, riddle of a film and I’m not sure Anderson wants us to find, or has, an answer. And in an era of easy-to-follow films with clear meanings which favor narrative and characters, The Master is a film for debating, arguing, contemplating, positing, redrawing, questioning, and doubting. One could say it entirely fails in a narrative sense – the film is a mess, and it lacks any semblance of emotive flow designed to structure our emotions or construct a certain feeling other than bewilderment. Anderson has all the tools, but he uses them, intentionally, confusingly and disjointedly. If the film has its own identity divorced from any other kind of filmic identity ever seen, that may be because Anderson isn’t striving for any particular identity but angrily meshing them together uneasily and at perpendicular angles. I can’t entirely defend the film (although I realize I’ve just spent about 2600 words doing exactly that), but I will say: we don’t have a lot of films like this anymore, so don’t give up on this one without a fight.
Score: I couldn’t even begin…