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Review: Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master"

Absorbing but also curiously inert, this moody character study introduces many ideas and themes, but follows only one of them to the end.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

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.

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