Here we go.
For a cineaste like me, a new Paul Thomas Anderson film is like Christmas, except it happens much less frequently. The last PTA movie was a whopping five years ago — the rightful Best Picture winner There Will Be Blood (which lost to the good-but-not-as-great No Country For Old Men). It’s one of those Oscar upsets people were generally okay with at the time, but even just five years later, I think most would now select There Will Be Blood as the more monumental achievement. It has that spark of a true masterpiece; it has aged well in just half a decade’s time. (It wasn’t even my favorite film of that year, yet I’d list it now as one of the best of the decade, if not of all time.) Some movies just take a little time to process.
And speaking of “processing,” here is The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest. It’s the story of two men, one who leads what some refer to as a “cult,” the other who blindly follows it. The cult is loosely based on Scientology, its master on L. Ron Hubbard. Needless to say, it’s one of the most anticipated films of the year. As if that weren’t enough, it was also shot in 70mm, the first narrative film to be since 1996’s Hamlet. Oh, and it stars a slew of Academy Award-nominated and -winning actors.
How could it not be good?
“Say it ain’t so!” I replied. Fate, travel, and The Beatles kept me from seeing The Master until recently, after everyone else had weighed in. I went into it hoping for the best despite griping and indifference from those who were underwhelmed. The film has engendered a healthy critical response (though it is not as unanimously fawning as There Will Be Blood’s), thanks to two strong lead performances, the stunning cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. (collaborating with Anderson for the first time), and some heady subject matter. Given the high hopes I had for a new film from one of my favorite living filmmakers, nothing short of a cinematic miracle could have met my expectations. So, no. The Master didn’t quite, either.
The Master is the story of a despicable character who meets another despicable character, neither of whom changes even slightly over the course of the movie. The first is Freddie Quill (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II vet suffering the kind of PTSD usually reserved for movies about Vietnam. Freddie is violent, he’s an alcoholic, he harasses (and attempts to kill?) strangers with no solid motive. He even falls asleep on a date with a pretty co-worker (Amy Ferguson), effectively killing any chance of getting lucky (which was probably his only interest in her anyway). That’s because Freddie is a horndog extraordinaire, using sex as an escape from the misery of being himself. Phoenix’s performance is unapologetically repugnant, meaning we never have much sympathy for the character. It’s a performance reminiscent of Adam Sandler’s in Punch Drunk Love, also prone to ill-tempered outbursts. But he lacks Sandler’s innocent charm. This is not a man you’d want to spend much time with.Lancaster Dodd, on the other hand, is pretty genial for someone dubbed “The Master.” Freddie stows away on his cruise ship, gets blackout drunk and belligerent (off screen, unfortunately), and, when he comes to, Dodd takes a liking to him, allowing to him stay on as part of “The Cause.” (The name alone screams “cult!”) This mean going through what is known as “Processing,” (again, screaming “cult!”) in an intense sequence in which Freddie must answer a series of invasive questions without ever blinking. (It’s an impressive scene, and Phoenix rises to the occasion admirably.) In return, Freddie shares his concoction of choice (fruit juice and paint thinner — yum!), which Dodd downs readily.
From there, the Freddie-Dodd relationship doesn’t ebb and flow as much as you might expect. The Master takes us through a rigorous brainwashing session, a few flashbacks to Freddie’s past, a motorcycle race in the desert. There are a few perverse touches — an unexpected hand job, a fantasy sequence in which all of the women at a party suddenly lose their apparel, and some surprisingly salty language. (Surprising because of the time period and old-fashioned feel of the film, though hardly shocking from the man who brought us Boogie Nights.) Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance is wonderfully assured and charismatic, but not quite so seductive as you might expect. We, the audience, are never drawn to The Cause the way Freddie is. We don’t see what is so alluring to these people, despite a few moments that almost suggest it. (One of the best — Adams tells Freddie to imagine that her eyes are black. And then they are. Chilling.)
The supporting cast is filled with fine performers doing as much as they can with small roles. There’s Amy Adams as Dodd’s devout wife Peggy, who believes in The Cause with a fierce passion unmatched by anyone, including Dodd himself. We meet Dodd’s son (Jesse Plemons), daughter (Ambyr Childers), and son-in-law (Rami Malek). There are dissenters, both within and outside of The Cause, to whom Freddie does not take kindly. There’s one terrific scene in which Laura Dern’s character, a doting fan of her Master, confronts Dodd about a possible discrepancy in his teachings; he chews her head off, and the horrified look she gives is priceless. (And potentially signals her awakening?) The film could have used more scenes like this. But ultimately, The Master is rather vague about Dodd’s beliefs — both what he’s teaching, and just how cultish it all really is. He writes books, people like them, and he attempts to teach them a certain way of thinking. There’s nothing so sinister about it, though Dodd gets awfully blustery when a party guest grills him about his cultish practices. (He screams “Pig fuck!” in one of few distinctly Andersonian moments. It’s the one touch that harkens back to vintage PTA.)
The dynamic between the two central characters, however, remains the same throughout most of the movie, even when Dodd’s followers begin to distrust Freddie. (Rightfully — he’s a loose canon.) Anderson obviously isn’t out to totally skewer Hubbard or Scientology; it’s less about The Cause and more about the effect. But its depiction of those effects is slippery, because we don’t get to know any of the characters well enough to guess what they’d be like without their Master. Freddie Quill is such an usual, off-putting character that we never identify with what he’s searching for in Dodd. Were he more of an everyman, bewitched by Dodd’s charlatan gestures, we may be more entranced with the film at large. But Freddie is just a ticking time bomb, his actions mostly random. He falls in line with Dodd, then falls out without fanfare, and we never exactly know why. The climax of the film is when he needs to make a choice whether or not to continue with The Cause, but the stakes feel low because Freddie hasn’t changed for the better or the worse in the process. He’s still drinking, fighting strangers, chasing skirts. Who cares whether or not he does that under Dodd’s tutelage or of his own volition?
With a filmmaker as deliberate and assured as Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s hard to imagine that The Master is a misstep. Evidence of lazy screenwriting. A narrative mess. Were this his debut feature, it might be dismissed that way. Instead, we must assume that everything is here (or not here) for a Reason. Anderson might be broaching any number of Big Ideas through these characters. Freddie is repeatedly shown interacting with a woman made of sand on the beach during the war — at first mock-humping her, finally just laying by her side. It’s an image that suggests his willingness to let anyone fill the void in him, whatever’s missing — and Dodd certainly does that, for Freddie and for the rest. (There’s another recurring image of the wake of a shape that similarly suggests Freddie’s willingness to go with the tide.) It’s not so much that Dodd is masterful; it’s more about the desperation of his followers, their need to believe. Yet there’s no consequence, for Dodd or Freddie or anyone else.
I’m hesitant to indulge too much in what The Master could be “about,” because with a story this elusive, who can say? Some have proposed a homosexual reading of the central relationship, though very little in the film actually supports it. The Master is a classical-feeling movie with a deliberate pace, containing few visceral flourishes (unlike Anderson’s other films). Many moments are memorable, particularly thanks to the razor-sharp, gorgeous 70mm projection (if you see it that way, as I did). It feels of another time, something like Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, though with a few added kinks. Individual scenes have more impact on their own than collectively, for the third act in particular is a dramatic letdown. A show-stopping finale like the one in There Will Be Blood might have helped this all come together — “I drink your paint thinner!”, perhaps? But Anderson seems to be willfully avoiding such a thing (perhaps in response to his critics).
Anderson also underuses several dynamo actors and underwrites a few roles — Dodd’s son seems wholly unnecessary; Dern gets far too little screen time. And Adams, though fiery and compelling in the scenes she’s in, feels like she’s missing a moment or two that really bring this character home (and earn her another Oscar nod).
There are echoes of the rest of Anderson’s oeuvre here — the daddy issues of There Will Be Blood, the self-destructive temperament of Punch Drunk Love‘s Barry, the master-protegee relationship between Jack Horner and Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, the unusually-timed bursting into song of Magnolia. But what does The Master offer that’s truly novel? The plot is half-baked, with few surprises and no momentous developments, leading us to believe that Anderson is more interested in the relationship between these men than happens as a result. A movie like this has two options available — one, introduce two characters so larger-than-life and dramatic that we can’t tear our eyes away, waiting to see what they’ll do next (as in There Will Be Blood); or, two, let us truly feel for these guys, so we’re emotionally invested in the outcome (the Magnolia approach).
The Master doesn’t quite do either. There’s one bravura scene in a jail cell with Freddie freaking out, tearing the place apart, while The Master is as placid as can be. It’s a wonderful microcosm of who these men are, a hint at what the rest of the film might have been like had Anderson sprinkled his There Will Be Blood gonzo dust over it. Anderson clearly wasn’t going for that, and yet, despite lots of guessing, no one seems to be quite clear on what he’s saying here. Is that okay? Can a movie be so ambiguous? Well, yes — but it helps if it’s also engrossing.
After a run of so many great films and zero bad ones, it’s hard not to feel betrayed by The Master, even while realizing that I’ll need to see it again and unpack it further at a later date. I enjoyed every one of Anderson’s earlier films on first viewing, whereas The Master I could only sporadically admire. So amongst his films, it’s certainly on the lesser end in my book.
Unless Anderson has intentionally made a confounding, unsatisfying film full of hot air, much ado about nothing. Think about it — amongst eager cinephiles, there is no cinematic Master greater than Paul Thomas Anderson. Sure, there are heavyweights like Scorsese and Spielberg, but none who have quite the same spotless record as Anderson does, thus far. None whose entire body of work can be regarded as a singular masterpiece. And now, like Dodd, the Master fails us… talking in circles about something we don’t understand, hoping to pull the wool over our eyes and have us bow down and praise him. Maybe The Master doesn’t add up, the same way Dodd’s teachings ultimately fail his pupils. Wouldn’t that be a feat?
Okay, no, I don’t actually think that was Anderson’s intent. I’m just making excuses. I’m still haunted by a few of the film’s more dream-like visuals, curious enough to return to it at a later date. (But maybe not until it’s on DVD.)In the meantime, I think I’ll go watch Boogie Nights and Magnolia and There Will Be Blood again. Now those are films that know how to go out with a bang.