The Master (2012): Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Laura Dern. Rated R for: Sexual content, graphic nudity, and language. Running time: 137 minutes.
Rating: 3.5/4 stars
Having spent the better part of a week going over The Master in my head, I am still hard-pressed to say exactly what I think about it. I can definitely say that it was not what I expected it to be. Although similarities with Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, are there- a strange and off-beat acoustic soundtrack, rampant alcoholism, and a cast of strange, twisted, and yet relatable characters- The Master is very much its own film, with own story to tell and its own style in doing so. Whereas There Will Be Blood offered wide, sweeping shots of the American West as a crucial backdrop to its story, The Master provides one close-up after another of the people’s faces, and trades Blood’s consistently bleak browns for shots ranging from vividly colorful to stark and shadow-filled.
At the heart of Anderson’s new tale is Freddie Quell, a struggling, alcoholic WWII veteran, whose every twitch, glare, and nervous tic is brilliantly brought to life by a shaved Joaquin Phoenix. After an opening segment that depicts several spectacular failures on Freddie’s part to adjust to civilian life (after being told how full of potential he is), he encounters, “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher, but above all a man”, otherwise known as Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Dodd is the leader of a social/religious/scientific movement called “The Cause,” based loosely (very loosely) on the real-life origins of Scientology. Quell, who we learn has clear issues with commitment in his life, becomes devoutly, and sometimes violently, attached to (and protective of) Dodd, although what he thinks of The Causes’ various teachings themselves is never made very clear. Dodd accepts Quell into the movement despite his constant trouble-making, arguing that he and his wife (the ever-engaging Amy Adams) can “cure” him of his troubles.
The Cause itself, however, is ultimately not the real focus of the film. Its similarities to scientology do provide a limited frame of reference, but its hardly an expose or a broad parody of scientology in the same way that Book of Mormon was for Mormonism. Some of Dodd’s teachings and ideas- that life is trillions of years old, and that “recalling” past lives can cure terminal illnesses, to name a few- are discussed intermittently, but the audience is never given a tangible, solid outline of the what the Cause really is, and whether it can be called a scientific movement or a religious one (both are implied). Rather than picking out and critiquing a particular philosophy, religion, or way of thinking, Anderson instead uses both the Cause and the complex relationship between Dodd and Quell to take a broader look at the very idea of belief itself, wondering (but never directly asking) why so many people feel the need to “follow” something, be it scientific, religious, or something else entirely.
In so many ways, Dodd and Quell are perfect foils for each other. Dodd is a loquacious, charming, and cultured Don Quixote, walking with his head held high in both confidence and defiance, earnestly asserting that man is a cut above the rest of the animal kingdom. Quell, on the other hand, is an animalistic, instinctive, and unhinged Pablo, embodying everything Dodd seems to fight against. After joining the Cause, one of the first things he does is pass a note to a women he’s never met asking if she wants to fuck. He stumbles on his words, grimacing angrily at almost everyone and everything around him. His nonstop pacing, and the constance presence of his hands on his hips, bring to mind an impatient, hungry dog, hurt and anxious, but at the same time cowed and fearful.
Strange and inexplicable though it may be, it is ultimately Dodds and Quell’s brotherly relationship to each other that drives the film. Anderson is the rare director who prefers to show rather than tell, who really uses the art of film in all its aspects, both visual and auditory, to tell a story. The Master is a prime example of this. Each character says just as much (and sometimes more) with their silences as they do with their words. The result is a powerful and thought-provoking film that leaves you unsure of what, exactly, you just saw.
Sadly, this could easily result in many people simply dismissing the film as not having any real substance at all, that it’s all arthouse with no story. While I can understand why someone might think that, I must respectfully disagree. No, it is not a movie that tells you directly what it is about or what it is trying to say. The true mastery of the film (pun intended) is that it manages to suggest so much about leadership, faith, and human nature without ever feeling the need to offer any definite answers. Is Dodd a genuinely good person, or a deliberate manipulator of people’s emotions for his own gain? Should we despise Quell for his violence and aggression, or pity him for the pain etched in every line of his face? Is The Cause a sinister movement, or a beneficial one? Can any movement be considered good or bad? Rather than saying one or the other, The Master offers itself to its audience, and as the credits roll, asks, “What do you think?”
Although I am still not certain what I took away from The Master, few films this year have forced me to think so hard and so long. It may not be in theaters for long, so if you have not seen it yet, do yourself a favor and get out as soon as possible. There’s been no other movie like it thus far in 2012, and even if you don’t like or “get” it, you definitely won’t forget it. What more could you ask for?