Paul Thomas Anderson began his career with the story of an older social outcast taking on a younger one as his protégé in 1996’s “Hard Eight,” and now, 16 years later and regarded by many as the leading American filmmaker of his generation, he has returned to the same scenario in “The Master.” Once again, Anderson has furnished the dynamic with confounding ambiguities, as the two men’s respective pasts and motivations are scarcely illuminated — this time, even more scarcely than they were in “Hard Eight,” which at least gave the viewer the satisfaction of an explanatory final revelation about its protagonist’s background. As “The Master” progresses, it becomes clear that there isn’t a traditional narrative; instead, the men’s complex, often cryptic relationship serves as its primary conduit for storytelling.
The men are Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a recently discharged World War II veteran whose mind has been ravaged by either insanity he inherited from his mother or PTSD, and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the founder of a Scientology-esque fringe religion called The Cause. Lancaster, often referred to as the eponymous master, adopts the troubled Freddie as his proverbial servant when he finds the man stowed away on his yacht, which he and adherents of The Cause have chartered to take them from San Francisco to New York on religious business. While it’s hard to tell if Freddie responds (or is even capable of responding, given his mental derangement) to any of The Cause’s rituals–he does appear awed after submitting to “Processing,” a hypnosis-like practice that seeks to divorce the spirit from the body–he certainly takes to the idea of Lancaster as his so-called master. The resulting odyssey, crossing several cities and years, is an intense exploration of male bonds, mental illness, authority figures, the will to believe, religious freedom, the dark side of post-WWII America, and more.
Critics of “The Master” have complained that while Anderson explores many thought-provoking constructs, he does not actually assert any specific theses as the filmmaker. This is an accurate characterization that is compounded by the fact that it is impossible to empathize with Freddie or Lancaster because they are both mentally far gone, barring the sort of emotional connection to the material that would compensate for such ideological deficiencies. However, I would argue that even though Anderson doesn’t say a whole lot with “The Master,” the nature in which the film explores the aforementioned ideas is so deliberate and observant that it results in same kind of high-level viewer thought that more concrete assertions would have, anyway. Anderson’s non-thesis-driven approach couldn’t be less like that of director Benh Zeitlin, whose “Beasts of the Southern Wild” merely threw out symbols left and right and hoped that the viewer would make something of them. “The Master” is, by contrast, a guided tour through fully detailed themes — a potent format to make the audience consider the issues that Anderson raises, even if the film lacks the forcefulness of a work that takes a position on its issues.
Furthermore, had Anderson injected clearer commentary about the ideas he grapples with in “The Master,” it may very well have taken away from the intimacy with which the writer/director depicts the central relationship. While the film is an auteur work in that it is visually unique and boasts commonalities with Anderson’s other films, its construction emphasizes the characters over the filmmaking style. Through long takes (mainly shot in close-up) that never draw attention to themselves like those in Steve McQueen’s “Hunger,” Anderson gives Phoenix and Hoffman ample time to fully embody these men, even if they largely remain enigmas to the audience. With lesser actors, this experience could have been alienating–despite capturing seemingly every pore on the men’s foreheads, the close-ups fail to drill a few inches deeper and detail the inner-workings of their brains–but Phoenix and Hoffman are so believable in their characterizations of separate varieties of crazy, it never ceases to be vital. Trying to figure out what is going on in Freddie and Lancaster’s heads may be an answerless pursuit, but that doesn’t mean it is a fruitless one, as important questions are raised in the process. For instance, given that Freddie and Lancaster are both equally mentally ill–the latter either believes his own hokum or is simply determined to brainwash others–why is it that Lancaster is able to attract a devoted cult following but Freddie is universally recognized as a nutcase?
While the movie is driven by Freddie and Lancaster’s dynamic, their respective interactions with the supporting cast flesh out aspects of the characters that are otherwise obscure. Anderson makes Freddie’s preoccupation with sex clear from the beginning–in a nod to the Freudian principles that gained great popularity in postwar America, if not necessarily a reflection of them–as the character humps a sand-sculpture of a woman’s body on shore-leave and identifies every slide of a Navy psychologist’s Rorschach test as a sex organ. But a flashback reveals that this obsession stems not from complete psychosis; it’s also derived from trauma over loss of contact with his prewar love, Doris (Madisen Beaty). Their brief scenes together are the most human in the film — the only instance that Freddie is recognizable as a man and not a lunatic, even if his fetishization of 16-year-old girl may indicate loosening screws (it’s unclear how old he is supposed to be). Lancaster’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), also adds another dimension to the film in that she embodies the consequences of her husband’s message, believing fully in it and resenting the general public’s dismissal of The Cause’s message. By comparison, their son, Val (Jesse Plemons), goes along with the routine but doesn’t actually buy into any of it. These characters don’t get much screen-time, but they are invaluable in that they tell the audience something about men who give away very little themselves.
It would be an unforgivable oversight not to mention how visually beautiful “The Master” is — an accomplishment that has gotten lost in the abundant discussion about Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s unconventional choice to shoot much of the movie on 70mm film-stock. Too many bloggers have wrongly attributed the exquisite compositions to the format itself, which boasts greater resolution than 35mm and digital but in reality has little to do with the film’s photographic accomplishments. (Anderson’s use of 70mm was more a political statement that Hollywood should not abandon celluloid than an artistic necessity.) But wow, is “The Master” ever a great film to look at — Malaimare’s attention to textures, use of the boundaries of the frame to impart feelings of confinement on the audience, and subtle tracking movements are all striking. Glistening shots of the ocean that are interspersed throughout evoke the Arnoldian view of high art’s formal achievements as a source of sweetness and light. But it’s shortsighted to focus too tightly on the technical accomplishments of “The Master,” for the film’s core relationship is where its true transcendence rests — often impenetrable, but nonetheless rich and entirely consuming.