Revisiting The Master

Professional film criticism demands an immediate response to films, whereupon the rumination and synthesis of a picture is limited to a short amount of time. Such was the case with most immediate responses to The Master upon its initial release. Everyone from bloggers to professional critics voiced an opinion on the heels of the film’s arrival. Twitter responses were elevating to the level of scripture when attempting to gauge the film’s merits. And responses to the picture’s worth sparked every cinephile’s interest.

And while I appreciated getting the many hits on my site for my first review of The Master, I can’t argue that it was a review that I published with doubts; I simply wasn’t sure of the film. Even as I discuss dense movies, like my response to David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, I feel I have a handle on the material to write about it intelligently. But with The Master, there were simply too many moving parts that I failed to acknowledge appropriately. And having a late-night screening of the film after a long day of work certainly didn’t help. So, upon the film’s nationwide release, I gave The Master a much-needed rewatch.

What struck me most immediately about The Master on my rewatch was how incredibly related it is to Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous two films, Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood. There’s an incredible leap in formal proficiency and growth coming out of Anderson’s work since Punch-Drunk Love. While his earlier films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia possessed an incredible level of nuance in roaming through ensemble casts, with Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and now, The Master, Anderson has reached an entirely new level of filmmaking. Perhaps in his own internal struggle as a filmmaker, Anderson’s most recent batch of films is a tip of the hat to Stanley Kubrick, whereas his first three films adopted a more shaggy Robert Altman-esque approach. Understanding the difference the filmmaking techniques is crucial component to approaching The Master and understanding its characters.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) possesses some interesting similarities to Anderson’s male characters, most notably Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) in Punch-Drunk Love and Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in There Will Be Blood. The anxiety and erratic behavior from Egan is compounded a sense of viciousness that was explored in Plainview’s character. But to deconstruct the Quell character as merely a composite of Anderson’s previous characters is a disservice. There’s richness to Quell’s aggressiveness and visceral exploits. To see such a character driven my chemical impulses is nothing short of compelling. And unlike any other character in Anderson’s films (yes, even Boogie Nights) Quell is a character largely driven by sexual desires. I argued against the idea initially, largely because of the nostalgic reverence that Quell appears to place on a former love. But as the picture moves forward and as Quell bounces back and forth through the East Coast to the South and arriving in England, I resigned myself to the idea that his fascination over “Doris” is largely based on the idea that he missed out on one great fuck.

That’s not to dismiss the character – rather, I think it a bold move on Anderson’s part to have a character so ruthlessly ingrained in perceived vice and animalistic pleasures. What keeps the picture on an even keel is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, Lancaster Dodd. I suggested this in my initial review of The Master and upon rewatching the film, I feel justified in noting the commonalities between Dodd and Quell. The two are cut from the same cloth, suggesting the same tendencies. It’s self-control that Dodd displays. In one of the film’s many compelling images, Dodd and Quell are jailed. Quell brutalizes himself as a caged animal while Dodd merely exercises restraint. It’s perhaps the most crucial piece of imagery in understanding the motivations and behaviors of the film’s characters. Other scenes are worth comparing, such as Dodd’s bathroom handjob in relation to Quell’s sexual rendezvous with a buxom English woman. One experiences sexual gratification behind closed doors, experiencing orgasm with the aid of whispers. The other experiences sex in its most animalistic and uninhibited. 

Another overlooked example is how both men react to skepticism. As Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern) questions Dodd on the organization’s newfound theological changes, Dodd   attempts to humor her questions. But as the questions begin to get deeper, Dodd reacts with hostility, shouting at one of his most devout followers. In an intercut scene, we see Quell’s violent reaction to a follower who confesses skepticism to The Cause’s worldview. The two possess the same animalistic tendencies – it’s only Dodd who is capable of keeping it somewhat veiled.

Much like There Will Be Blood, The Master relishes in its ability to show the duality of its characters while exploiting the contradictions in their motives. The overlying interests of capitalism and religiosity in There Will Be Blood were in constant battle, with capitalism reigning supreme. The Master also has a fairly definitive duality of concepts between the civilized and the savage. The picture suggests a clear victor, but that largely depends on one’s interpretation of what constitutes savagery and civilized behavior. Perhaps most indicative to understanding the film’s final scene is who can really be called the “master”. Is it the one who hides their perceived misconduct from prying eyes? Or is it the one who accepts and relishes in vice? 

The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

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. 

Rating: 8/10