By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
Reviewing The Master
The Master is, at the same time, both completely familiar as something emerging from the mind of Paul Thomas Anderson and completely unfamiliar, as he has freed himself of traditional narrative considerations.
I don’t think of this as a movie that can really be spoiled. It is demanding of the viewer and each person will linger in the experience in their way. But if you want to go in clean, stop reading this now. I’m not going to offer up a blow-by-blow of the story, but a discussion of the ideas an techniques of the film.
The movie opens and we spend considerable time – not unlike There Will Be Blood – with one character, Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quells. In Blood, the hands-on journey of Daniel Plainview to Oilman defines the entire film. There is some balance created by Eli Sunday, but he is really a reflection that clarifies Plainview.
Here, Paul Thomas Anderson has “corrected” that imbalance, though I don’t really think he was trying to respond to another film of his through this one. That said, the two characters here are of equal power. Freddie is the dominant presence in the film, as he is all male, stuck in perpetual emotional puberty. Joaquin Phoenix gives his most fevered performance to date.
Freddie’s opposite number is Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, a snake oil salesman of self-help. Carefully coiffed and almost always “on,” like the big con artists of The Grifters, but without the sexual release, enjoyment of the con, and ultimate mental breakdown. Those things are all deferred to Freddie.
Driving Lancaster (rarely referred to by name and certainly not by “Lancaster,” while “Freddie” is always “Freddie”) is Amy Adams’ Mary Sue Dodd, whom I do not believe is ever referred to by “Mary Sue” in the entirety of the film. Hers is the smallest of the three major roles, but she drives the entire thing… not unlike the Julianne Moore character in Boogie Nights, but even more so. In some ways, she is the opposite number to Dirk Diggler’s mother in Boogie, unfettered by – like both older BN women – sexual confusion. Mrs. Dodd is a zealot, much more so than Mr. Dodd, and she eventually shows herself to be the driving force between the whole “movement” that Mr. Dodd fronts and sells so eloquently.
My take on the film, overall, is that Mrs. Dodd created Mr. Dodd out of the Freddie she found. The entire system of “beliefs” that Dodd is pushing seems designed to make a Lancaster out of a Freddie. And in the end, as we see both in Freddie and in Dodd, you cannot tame your inner Freddie, you can only sublimate him, presumably for your own good.
It’s worth considering all the water in this film. Water is considered to be a reflection of emotion in a dream state. The movie opens on a beach, there is the churning water behind the boat, seen in the trailer, Freddie/Dodd come together on a boat… even the major scene between The Dodds (described below) takes place as the water runs in the sink.
A friend, who hasn’t seen the picture, but knows the history of L. Ron Hubbard, refers back to Hubbard’s house-sharing pal Jack Parsons, a rich kid and literally a rocket scientist, with whom Hubbard lived in Pasadena in the 1940s. Tales of their debauchery are epic. I can’t begin to speak to their veracity. But some will argue that Freddie is a reflection of Jack or of the time these men partied together.
What I believe is that PTA took all of the stories about Hubbard and then threw away the restrictions of reality or truth… that this movie is not at all a biographical work about Hubbard or Scientology, but a poem of sorts drawn from the elements, speaking to themes of duality that Anderson has long had an interest in exploring. To say this movie is “about Scientology” would be like saying that Clerks 2 is “about McDonald’s.”
There are many “key scenes” in the film, but the two that I expect will be most discussed are, first, the one in the jail, where Dodd is brain right and Freddie is brain left, caged next to each other, Dodd calmly smoking a cigarette and Freddie literally destroying his cell.
The second is a sequence in which Dodd, with a few drinks in him, imagines all the women in his circle to be naked while enjoying a party. In the next scene, Mrs. Dodd comes to him and reminds him of his boundaries. She emotionlessly takes control of his penis as he washes his face at the sink and mirror and gives him sexual relief as she explains that he is sliding and better keep himself in check. It’s not the only time that Dodd cannot keep his inner Freddie under wraps, but it is the only time where we see the mechanism of his control.
There is no “meet cute” between Freddie and The Dodds in this film. It’s one of the things that makes clear that what we are seeing on the surface in not all there is to see. Freddie exists as a character – The Character – in the film before we meet The Dodds. Like the early mining sequences in TWBB, this opening chunk of the film has its own wonders and joys. Telling is a sequence in which as character who looks a lot like Dodd – played by W. Earl Brown – is provoked and eventually attacked by the then-department-store-photographer Freddie. This is what happens when “Dodd” enters Freddie’s world. Havoc. When Freddie enters Dodd’s world, there is a tempering of Freddie… but ultimately, there is no way to be with Freddie and fully sublimate Freddie.
Freddie and Dodd meet when Freddie turns up on the yacht where The Dodds are celebrating his daughter’s wedding, This is a natural moment at which a man might miss his wild youth… and voila, his wild life turns up. But after plenty of Freddie, Dodd ends up screaming – to himself? – “no one likes you… but me!” Freddie has to go. And his exit is seen by many as anti-climactic. Not me. Truly saying goodbye to your youthful self is a major event in a life. But Anderson being Anderson, it is not signaled and commented on in dialogue over and over.
That is the range of this film. It’s not a big narrative tale. But it’s like a pure narcotic, so strong that it needs to be cut to be consumed safely. Of course, Anderson is not out for safety.
Anderson has may flourishes in the film that are in line with Kubrick’s love of subtext. For instance, Kubrick created a world in which every woman was a redhead and even the curtains were framed by red as blue light watched the action in Eyes Wide Shut… Tom Cruise surrounded by his wife, played by the blue-eyed, then-red-headed Nicole Kidman. All the women in the lives of Dodd/Freddie in this film are also redheads.
As always, PTA makes a gorgeous movie. The images, the performances, the music… all of the very highest level. I have a great deal of respect for the choice to make a 70mm film almost 2 full decades since there has been a non-doc/IMAX release in the format. And it’s beautiful. I’ve seen it onscreen in two rooms and both were a sheer sensory joy. One could discuss for many hours whether this choice is PTA’s Freddie or Dodd in practice, as it is a choice that is both elegant and perverse. But artists being artists must always be accepted and celebrated.
This is probably PTA’s least accessible movie for general audiences. But it is also his most mature work as a filmmaker. Kubrick had puzzles in all of his films, but he died just before the release of his one true puzzle movie, Eyes Wide Shut. He offered even fewer clues to the subtext than Anderson has here. But this is a film for which a surface reading will offer some pleasures, but a sense of discomfort for many. And not just for “dumb people.” Some of the smartest film people I know walked away from a first screening feeling dazed and confused. But this is the kind of film that gets richer and more beautiful in multiple viewings and for years to come. And that is the true test of art. And Mr. Anderson, for all the choices he makes that one agrees with or disagrees with in a audience-reliant medium, is an artist, first and last, in and out, Freddie and Dodd. Thank goodness for that.