With its close quarters, tight close-ups, and perpetual yearning for intimacy and connection, The Master is a picture that continues the trend found in Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood – the trend of viewing men in a state of social decay. From Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan to Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview, the central men in The Master are consumed with an everlasting desire to achieve some measure of social connection. But it’s when Anderson aggressively employs various thematic elements to his men’s toils that the picture begins to falter. Like the vibrant blue ocean imagery that populates the film, Anderson struggles to navigate through the depths of his character’s psyches.
While much buzz has circulated around The Master’s subject matter, the film is not so much concerned about the religious affiliation of its characters. While spirituality is a crucial component to the film’s thematic resonance, it is less a scathing analysis on the celebrity religion of Scientology and more an astute observation on the nature of religiosity in relation to vice. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is first seen in his most animalistic phase at the start of The Master. Seen on a beach with his fellow Navy men, Quell grunts and howls as he fashions a woman out of sand, illustrating the man’s central concern. Coupled with Johnny Greenwood’s jarring but beautiful compositions, the audience is offered a glimpse into Quell’s life and his unsatiated and often intertwined desire for women and booze.
Quell’s vices come in contact with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The questionable spirituality of Dodd’s character initially seems to operate in direct opposition to Quell’s lifestyle. Dodd and Quell form a sort of camaraderie despite their perceived differences – but it’s through their contrast that we see Anderson delve into the commonalities between Quell’s vice and Dodd’s religiosity. In the picture’s central observation, Anderson probes how Quell functions as a man of instinctual mannerism, often regressing to visceral behaviors when placed in a difficult position – he’s a man without religion. However, Dodd employs his religion as a front for his own animalistic tendencies. When questioned about the specifics of his worldview, Dodd possesses the same spontaneity and erratic behavior found in Quell’s character.
Two scenes stick out as particularly relevant to The Master’s worldview. One involves Dodd and his wife Mary (Amy Adams) in a bathroom. With Dodd’s back to the frame, Mary proceeds to gratify her husband, speaking into his ear that her husband may embark on any sexual exploits he desires so long as she is not privy to the details. It’s a scene that is positioned in a purposefully jarring way – the two worlds of spirituality and sexuality are held in separately hidden quarters. There’s a mechanical manner to Mary fulfilling her husband’s sexual desires. It begins and ends in that bathroom as Anderson holds his camera static. The second scene involves Quell and a woman he picked up at a bar. Anderson frames the scene intimately. It’s here where Quell offers what is the film’s only clear integration of sexuality and religion - in one of the picture’s funniest lines of dialogue, Quell ends his discussion in the most crass and sexually-minded way possible. He embraces his flagrant sexuality and vices while Dodd does his utmost to conceal it.
There are various layers to the picture that I have failed to address. Most specifically being Quell’s familial past and nostalgia for a girl he left. They are intrinsic components that, admittedly, failed to register with me entirely. Quell’s parental abandonment serves as the source of social unease for many of Anderson’s central characters, and it is not much different here. But there are simply so many moving parts to this picture, that it’s the one component that feels too hurried and ill-conceived. As a result, The Master serves as Paul Thomas Anderson’s most emotionally distant film to date. For his past two films, Anderson struck a balance between brilliant composition and emotional heft. The Master clearly leans toward the former, as every frame drips with precision and purpose. What I got out of the picture is immediate sensory satisfaction (seeing the picture in 70 mm certainly helped), but something of distant, perhaps purposefully so, emotional poignancy.