THE MASTER Review

There are several different seeds for several different ideas going on within Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, The Master. By the end of the film you will likely even find yourself wondering what exactly the point of it all was, if there was a point at all. Of course there is a point, as perplexing or scatterbrained as it may sometimes seem, there is most certainly a point. The problem Anderson faces and has likely always faced is in bringing to the screen a platform where he can play with the ideologies, philosophies or spiritual ideas and questions floating around in his head. The problem I've had in dealing with this is that I haven't first become as accustomed to Anderson's work as I might like. I have seen all of his previous films, some even more than once, but none within recent enough memory to where I can recall what their influences might be on this latest work. Though the visual style is elevated even from his last acclaimed masterpiece, There Will Be Blood, the story seems more in line with the questions the director was asking himself around the time of Magnolia. The film should be taken on its own terms despite the fact it will always be part of the Anderson canon and constantly compared to his previous and forthcoming films. This may be the reason I decided not to go back and re-watch even the two aforementioned films. I needed to take in The Master with a clean slate, forget what everyone was saying about it, dismiss the hype even and let the movie play out in front of me with no preconceived notions of what I wanted it to be. Walking out of the film I was more than just satisfied with the final product, but completely fascinated by what I'd just experienced. It was certainly a summary, a concentration of many ideas with no certain answers, but it was also something much more than that. It was an experience to take in and one I don't think I've ever had in a movie theater before.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) does time as an in-store photographer before moving on to his next job.
If one does not typically go out of there way to notice smaller, and for lack of a better word, artistic films it is likely that the only thing known about the film is the fact that writer and director Anderson has used the foundation of the much talked about Scientology religion to express these ideas with which he is currently dealing. I honestly don't know that much about Scientology and I don't really care to know the ins and outs of it. I suspect I know just about as much as everyone else who hasn't researched it and that is that Tom Cruise participates in it. While this may have been a well placed link for the Weinstein Company to draw attention to the film it matters little to the actual content of the what is up for discussion here. Anderson could just have easily meant for it to be a modern day depiction of the disciples traveling across the lands to spread the word of Jesus as it is a mystical man who preaches unconventional, albeit pretty crazy sounding, theories to its ever growing number of followers. It is not a stretch to argue that there are plenty of people regardless of their background or credibility that find Christianity and other major religions to have strange or even sinister teachings. It is all in the eye of those looking in from the outside. That is what makes the film so appealing to an audience looking in on the action. That is what allows us to indulge so deeply in what is going on with our two main characters. Every single person has experienced that feeling of wanting to belong. Taking a step back though every person also realizes or second guesses how deep we can become enamored with something. We know that getting in to deep causes blindness and those that are too weak or too naive to realize what is actually happening never allow themselves that step back to see the bigger picture. They are consumed by what has become ingrained and feel it too difficult to turn back, to in essence, be made a fool of. Thus is the point Anderson seems intent on making, thus is the reason we are given the perspective we are allowed to witness. These ideas about ideas and how capable the human mind is to expand itself when searching for answers to what will forever be unknowable on this earth.

This brings us to where the director has found a way to communicate these ideas and propose such questions. That relationship between those two main characters. We first meet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as a sailor in the Navy in the late 1940's. He is already a lost soul, a drifter who is waiting to be released as the war comes to an end. It is clear through the process of his discharge that Freddie is obsessed with two things. He needs to drink and will turn to anything he can get his hands on in order to fill that desire and the same can be said for his sexual needs. After being discharged we see Quell go from job to job staying just enough time at each to test himself before he goes too far. One night he wanders upon the familiar setting of a yacht that is manned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his entourage of family members and close followers that include his wife (Amy Adams) his daughter and new son-in-law as well as his own son. From the first conversation between Freddie and Dodd it is clear there is not necessarily a connection, but a great impression. Freddie is a damaged psyche, the kind of mind Dodd needs in order to test his style of therapy on before exposing it to his masses. As Dodd travels across the States the next few years Freddie becomes his kind of right hand man, not necessarily a friend but a companion who feels the need to be an enforcer. It is a way to expel his rage that he feels is a justified manner to do it in.

Peggy (Amy Adams) with her husband Lancaster (Philip Seymour Hoffman)
and his daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers).
These two are the anchor for a film that doesn't necessarily have typical narrative structure. In many ways, The Master skews closer to Terrence Malick territory in that it does tell its story in a kind of linear fashion but it is filled with beautiful images that tell as much of that story as the dialogue does. What really makes the film an accomplishment besides its beautiful cinematography is the interesting characters it presents us with but moreso the two actors playing them. The attraction here is Phoenix, a man who swore off acting a few years back only to make a fake documentary that pushed his reputation even further to the edge. Anderson has given the actor a redemptive opportunity here with a role that is perfect for an actor who seems as lost and disillusioned as the character written for him. Phoenix, as he did with the role of Johnny Cash, digs so deep into who this man is that he becomes lost in the mind of him. He is unafraid to go as deep as it takes to understand and inhabit the character fully and he does that to the utmost with Freddie Quail. Everything about the man is so defined and so carefully constructed, from the way he stands to the way his lip is positioned. The commitment from Phoenix as he stares into the eyes of Dodd during one of their sessions not only makes you understand Freddie more but it also develops the character of Dodd as well. As Dodd, Hoffman plays him just as you might expect a man of his own expectation to be. He talks with confidence and clarifies his constantly thinking mind with fancy, flowery language that makes him come off as a great intellect, an academic which in turn convinces a great number of people of his credibility. Though it is exactly the way you might expect a figure such as he to act, Hoffman knows this and knows he has no other choice for he won't be taken seriously as the person he aspires to be if he does not come off as self-serious. He bites at the person who objects him though, he is fueled so much by his ego and what he believes he should be and how he expects to be regarded that he is smitten when he sees the loyalty with which Freddie deals with those who challenge him. Also to be noted is the great Amy Adams who shows a range of capabilities, shedding her sweet coating to reveal a wife purely devoted to her husband and his teachings.

Freddie becomes a drifter after serving his time as a sailor.
While Anderson has provided me an experience in the theater I've never had before there are moments in the film that never seem to mesh as well as they could have or can even seem forced. I can remember well enough in both There Will Be Blood and Magnolia that while they share similar running times with The Master they never seemed to lose focus. Like its main character though, this film seems to wander occasionally, drifting from the beaten path that would better benefit its story and the ideas and questions that fuel it. Even despite its moments of great clarity there are times in the film we wonder if such excessive focus on one aspect of the character is necessary. We realize that Freddie is a drunk and has no filter when it comes to his sexual desires and it displays these issues warts and all, giving a glimpse of a man who has no secrets he can hide from Anderson's audience. He gives us the bad with the good, but the bad certainly outweighs the blessings as most memorable characters turn out to be those composed of tragedy. Still, there is plenty of defend the asking of a question such as is it really necessary or even realistic that Freddie would masturbate out in the open on the beach? Maybe he would, maybe that argument is invalid but for me it detracted not from the character but from the film. There is plenty left to the audiences own interpretation as well, especially the actual beliefs of The Cause (Dodd's name for his organization). Despite giving the audience plenty of explanation on what his cause stands for and what he believes to be true about our existence in past lives we never really get to the core of what it is that Dodd is trying to accomplish with this. Maybe I'm being a bit narcissistic but I couldn't help the feeling there was something more to Dodd's agenda than to spread his made-up theories.

Still, any way I look at it I can't help but be captivated by the film. I can't help but want to talk about it. Whether it be in discussing what might be meant by the open-endings Anderson leaves or interpreting the different meanings or representations of characters and actions that take place throughout. It is hard to even feel like you are scratching the surface when attempting to discuss the film. It is a complex piece of work that has great characters and plenty of rich ideas that get explored with wonderful, thoughtful dialogue and gorgeous images. With all of the hype surrounding it and a lot of the small, indie films letting me down this year I expected The Master to be a kind of meandering piece of artsy images and ideas that form an incoherent story that could easily be taken to mean more than it actually does. While this description could likely be made by some and they would have evidence in support of that provided by certain sequences in the film, I find it hard to believe one could not become wrapped up in the odyssey of Freddie Quell and his quest to find some type satisfaction from things he already knows will disappoint him. He wants to meet his most basic human needs and nothing more. He wants no attachments, no specific set of ideals to live by. He wants to be alone and no matter how hard he tries to go the other way by submitting to Dodd's brainwashing he can't help but to rebel against that urge. Plus, if you think this is all too artsy for your own good The Master also has fart jokes, so there's that too.