The Master [Anderson, 2012]
The last time we visited Paul Thomas Anderson was in 1927 — the bowling alley of a hollow, California castle. Daniel Plainview was curled and slouched on the floor, having just bludgeoned Greedy Faith straight to heaven. “I’m finished.” Plainview catches his breath and Brahms blows in. Anderson may be the only big-game filmmaker cocky enough to invoke the last words of Christ after a pastor is clubbed to death. And, most troubling of all, Plainview doesn’t even know who he’s quoting.
It’s been five years since There Will Be Blood, but not much has changed. We move ahead a dozen years or so and then a dozen more and arrive in the same America where Daniel Plainview pumped gold from the earth and the same America where Eddie Adams will one day change his name to Dirk Diggler and the same America where frogs fall down. The Master cuts a line between the boundless ambition of There Will Be Blood and Anderson’s early work. It ushers us from one to the other. By the time he’s done with us, he might have left behind the most comprehensive cinematic history of America we’d ever imagine. Some may lament the loss of those tidy, personal stories in Sydney or Magnolia, but Anderson is increasing his scope and it’s only getting bigger, more expansive, and more relentless. At the end, we’re left with a floating wish. Freddy might call it a fart. Anderson’s always had trouble ending movies, but how does one end a picture like The Master? How does one end a love story of such terrific, dynamic proportions? It’s a brave cinema, a lets-both-jump-at-the-same-time cinema, a rabid cinema, a confident cinema, an imperfect cinema — and perfectly so.
Much will be written on what The Master is “about.” You can smell the dissertations in the theater. Roger Ebert, with an uncharacteristic lack of vigor, made no effort to wrestle with the beast and ultimately asked “But what does it intend to communicate?” Some weirdo thinks it’s about poison. Many folks in the theater were interpreting the entire movie through the lens of Scientology, which is the worst of all possible ideas. And I’ve read a convincing argument that the film is a pop-Freudian warzone. Indeed, the basic dramatic structure can be filtered through bread and look a lot like ID v. EGO FIFTEEN ROUNDS RUMBLE IN THE HOMOEROTIC TUNDRA. It’s all there. But none of these ideas is as satisfying as need. Anderson has said that he wanted to tell a love story between these two guys, and did he ever. The Master will immediately encourage comparison with There Will Be Blood, but its true companion is Punch-Drunk Love, that strange and enthusiastic monster from 2001. Both take loneliness as the greatest villain of all. Barry only pursues his enemy when his companionship is threatened. Here, Freddy Quell is Barry’s past life — a twitchy time-bomb trying to satisfy the most basic human desires.
World War II is ending when we first meet Freddie. In a prologue that feels very similar to the one in There Will Be Blood, we watch him struggle for satisfaction and satiation in a variety of crude gestures. He fights and climbs trees and eats and drinks and jerks off and fucks — he’s an animal. He first finds work in a department store and later on a farm. In an early, touching moment, Freddie tells a man that he looks like his father before accidentally incapacitating him with his Voodoo Lysol potion. Those familiar with Anderson’s oeuvre will not be surprised at the pathos invested in such a small moment — it deals with a father. On the run, Freddy stows away on a glowing yacht, photographed with mystical curiosity in a doozy of a long shot. The boat sets out into the Pacific and gives us the film’s greatest image — a group of pilgrims floating under the Golden Gate Bridge, an enormous American flag beating back in the dusk.
Aboard the vessel, Freddie meets Master Lancaster Dodd, leader of a pseudo-scientific group called The Cause, and a bond is born. Why is Dodd so friendly towards Freddie? It’s the most puzzling question of the film. In their final encounter, Dodd muses that “in the next life, we will be sworn enemies. And I will show you no mercy.” By giving us an angular, rigid Freddie and a round, rotund Dodd, we are allowed to ruminate on the basic needs that unite them. Opposites attract and all that nonsense but Dodd is undoubtedly drawn to Freddie’s simplicity, his freedom. Freddie becomes a sophisticated pet and soldier, his loyalty rooted in his desire for companionship. As Dodd subjects Freddie to “informal processing” as his guinea pig, Freddie doesn’t want to quit. Most curiously, he says that he “doesn’t like being told what to do.” Of course he does. Dodd, fighting fundamental animalism, sees an opportunity to help Freddie, but, most of all, sees himself in him.
It is hardly necessary to celebrate the pieces that form The Master‘s puzzle. It speaks for itself. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman exhibit formidable control, commitment, and work-ethic. Watching Phoenix in the processing scene is like watching a witch doctor brew every ache and pain you’ve ever known into a cup of tea and drinking it. Hoffman channels Anderson’s ghosts — Orson Welles and John Huston, above all. It’s a pair of performances with precedent, but led by a director who is somehow able to sell exuberant self-indulgence so well that the characters turn into American giants of inimitable stature. Amy Adams lurks in the corner of every scene. She’s often out of focus, tucked away in some tight crevasse, but always present and intense — hovering over the men. Anderson’s ability with actors is on par with any other, perhaps above — doing most of his job with writing, exhibiting a clear joy for dramatic scenario. Malaimare’s 70mm photography is electric spectacle. One small scene at the end, as Freddie walks along an English road below a ceiling of crooked connecting trees, mirrors the bright blue Rorschach of the ocean. Opting out of the snaking widescreen of There Will Be Blood, The Master uses a tighter ratio to fill the screen with the mountaintops and troughs of the human face, internalizing the epic. Jonny Greenwood leaves behind the moaning, apocalyptic strings of There Will Be Blood in favor of humming, twitchy winds with no desire for resolution. It’s haunting and calm and intimate — and at the end, it shows us how to feel. Anderson’s placement of music, especially the period songs late in the film, is his most assured and deliberate stroke of organization to date. His taste for camera motion has progressed from the unruly panache of Boogie Nights‘s opening to the delicate, dancing charm of the department store. And his taste for large-scale symmetry is as strong as ever. The return of the “processing” questions, the sand-woman, the clear blue wake all lead Freddie on his odyssey.
The Master will surprise many audiences with its compassion for religion. The surface of There Will Be Blood has convinced people that Anderson is hostile towards religion, but ever since the frogs, it’s been clear that he has a desire for faith and understands its place in society. Though we aren’t given a wealth of details on The Cause, Anderson takes it seriously. It confronts the fear that we are animals, the fear that this life is our only chance, the fear of pain, the fear of fleeting friendship — fears that everyone understands. Just like Freddie and Dodd need each other, we all need faith to keep the fear out. Of course, many specific elements of The Cause’s philosophy are made to seem ridiculous, but that doesn’t encourage Anderson to treat them as such.
There’s no question who “The Master” is. But it’s neither Freddie nor Dodd. It’s our urge, our evolutionary impulse, our basic struggle to mediate between our mind and our body. Some have said that Peggy is the true master. She might be. Not because she tells Dodd what to do, but because she can use her body to get it. Freddie’s sexual release in the final scene could have so easily been a surge of rabid energy, but Freddie lays on the bottom, straight and solid and submissive. He parrots the processing questions to his lover, not trying to master her, but to give her the same compassion that Dodd once gave him. He remembers how good it felt to be called “the bravest man I’ve ever known.” He remembers how good it felt to let go. He asks her, “Is this your only life?” After a moment, she says, “I hope not.”
To Anderson, the man who gave us bowling pins and pudding and Aimee Mann and frogs, faith is a virtue. If we do have animal brains, they’re big enough to tell us how small we are.