Note: The following review may have what could be considered “thematic” spoilers. No plot points are directly discussed, but their intents are. Be cautious.
Seeing a 70mm print of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master a month early was an idea that delighted me. Leaving the ornate San Francisco revival theater after the credits rolled was anything but delightful. Not because the movie was particularly unsettling, or poor in quality. I was simply at a loss for words. I had no idea what I thought, or would come to think. I’ve been doing this for a while now, and that doesn’t happen often.
It’s very much an Anderson film, right down to the plot synopsis: some years after WWII, a drifter named Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix) becomes attached to and entranced by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic fiction-writer who has designed his own religion, named The Cause. That last part should sound somewhat familiar for anyone whose educated in the ways of Scientology founder (and, what do you know, fiction-writer) L. Ron Hubbard. The film uses these parallels to great effect, but it’s only about Scientology in very, very broad strokes.
This plot, the brash protégé’s relationship with his seemingly wise mentor, isn’t uncharted territory for the director (a good example is the John C. Reilly/Philip Baker Hall combo in Hard Eight, and to a lesser extent, Mark Wahlberg/Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights), but one of The Master‘s more enigmatic qualities is the way it plays with that dynamic in a way the viewer doesn’t expect. Dodd has very little to offer Freddie that is of worth, and Freddie’s violent outbursts hurt Dodd more than they help him. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Visually speaking, this might be Anderson’s best work to date, and the fact that I saw an exclusive 70mm print certainly didn’t hurt. Freddie’s life before meeting Dodd is filled with vivid, contrasting colors; blues and reds and greens. As he begins to settle into a fleeting, comfortable lifestyle at a variety of The Cause’s compounds, the colors settle… only to erupt when Freddie does as well. It’s striking, but largely unobtrusive.
That same kind of method is applied to the audio, in a way that is purposefully extremely obtrusive. An incredible amount of tension builds throughout the film; a tension that’s never cut, even after the final shot. This is in part due to Jonny Greenwood’s excellent score, but is largely because of how the sound is mixed. Freddie and Dodd are both unstable in subtly different ways. Freddie breaks out into violence when he’s challenged, and Dodd breaks into an equally violent shout. You can never rest easy, because the two performances are so good, and so entirely crazy, that either could snap at any moment. There’s one character who has no pretences or façades (Dodd’s wife, played with confidence by Amy Adams), and while she’s forceful, she’s much quieter.
And it’s because of that tension that the film can feel so unfulfilling. If you’re looking for an “I drink your milkshake” moment, you’ve come to the wrong movie. The message seems to get lost in the shuffle, and all I can do is present my most humble interpretation: The Master is not a movie about a drifter in post-war America, nor is it about Scientology. It’s about faith. What it can do and what it can’t; how it helps and how it doesn’t.
Dodd is a provider of faith. Faith that some might call false (I’d argue that the faith presented in the film is as plausible as any other, but that’s a discussion for a different time, on a different site). Freddie doesn’t seem to be a particularly religious man, but he buys into it anyway, presumably because of his first “processing” session with the Master himself. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of psychology can tell that Dodd is merely using some basic hypnotic tricks to inspire a feeling of divine clarity, but Freddie, to say the least, does not have a cursory knowledge of psychology. The rest of Dodd’s flock believe because they want to, and Freddie believes because he has nothing else to attach himself to. He has that faith that should return him to, as Dodd often says, his original, perfect form, but that can only take him so far. He becomes more unstable than he was before; an angry, violent man with a thin shell of calmness and joy. It’s a striking representation of how faith can often leave you denying your misery and imperfection, which does little but leave you worse than when you started.
It’s in many ways Paul Thomas Anderson’s most pessimistic work, because the characters are never as aware of their failings as the audience is. Very few people are shown challenging the tenets of The Cause, and for good reason. The Master suffocates, and sticks the viewer inside the head of a man who tries so hard to believe in the ramblings of an especially clever science-fiction writer that he destroys himself in the process. It’s that same basic relationship that is the hallmark of Anderson’s previous work, but pushed to its logical, most depressing extreme, where neither party learns anything of value. I couldn’t tell you where The Master ranks in this director’s accomplished oeuvre, but I can say something that, in retrospect, washes away my indecision upon leaving that ornate revival theater; it fits.
The Master begins a limited release on September 14th, and goes wide on the 21st. As a favor to me, seek it out in 70mm.