The Master – (2012)


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Written and Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, Rami Malek, Ambyr Childers


At the beginning of P.T. Anderson’s The MasterFreddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is aboard a US Navy ship when WWII is declared over. We are meant to take it that he suffers from a terrible post-traumatic stress disorder, becomes a drinker and struggles to hold down a job. The fact is that in the moments leading up to the end of the war Freddie is seen contemplating chopping his fingers off with a machete, masturbating on a rock and  passing out with his hands on the breasts of a woman made from sand on a beach. To celebrate the end of the war, Freddie drinks fuel from a torpedo. The problems plaguing this man are rooted far deeper than what he has seen in the war. In his life after service, Freddie takes a job as a portrait photographer at a department store where he drinks the chemicals in the darkroom and later another job harvesting cabbages where he concocts a drink that seems to be a combination of moonshine and pesticides. When an old man drinks Freddie’s booze, he is poisoned and likely dies so Freddie runs and stows away on a yacht.

The yacht, it turns out, is owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman)who proclaims himself to Freddie to be “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.” It has been much speculated, and is indeed very thinly veiled, that Dodd is modelled on the science fiction writer and founder of Scientology L. Ron Hubbard. Dodd has gained a surprisingly large and devout following after the publication of his book The Cause, a following which refers to Dodd as Master, hang on his every word and engage in his practice of “processing” which resembles some combination of psychoanalysis, hypnosis and time-travel. Dodd likes Freddie immediately, and likes Freddie’s homemade poison even more, so he takes the young man under his wing with promises of reform and a bright future.

In many ways, The Master is a response to, or at least companion piece to Anderson’s previous film (and masterpiece) There Will Be Blood. At the center of that film is a single, talented man so driven to succeed that he will destroy anyone around him. The Master is about two men, so desperate and alone that they are unable to do anything but destroy themselves. There Will Be Blood was cold and people were alone against the world, but in this film rooms are always crowded and no character is never really alone in silence. Indeed Anderson’s camera spends much time here meditating in extreme close-up of each character, while in There Will Be Blood he lingered on long, distant shots setting his characters against the empty and imposing sky. The frigid, dark 35mm cinematography of the grubby, bare-boards rooms in There Will Be Blood are answered by the  65mm glut of light and luxury of The Master. In this film Jonny Greenwood’s jittery, discordant score plays like the shards of There Will Be Blood‘s taut, patient score. There Will Be Blood was all muddy fingers, grubby clothes, blood, thick oil and violence, while The Master is white sunlight, rich fabric, clean faces and swirling blue water.

What Anderson has made is a slow burning meditation on two lost men. That Freddie is lost is no secret, he’s incredibly self-destructive and thoughtless, gulps paint thinner with desperation but never seems to take a moment of joy or even distraction when he’s drunk, and has no sense of where he’s going. Dodd is lost as well, scrambling in the dark of his own life, but he is so grand, so charming and so quick that very few people (I suspect even himself) have caught on. There’s no doubt at all that Dodd is, as his son Val (Jesse Plemons) says, making it all up as he goes. He has figured out an exact combination of buzzwords and opaque speech so as to ring clear as a bell to his converts and confuse his detractors, but at the center of the myth is a lonely man indeed. Anderson never spells out exactly what the two men see in each other, just as he spells out very little else in the film. Perhaps each sees in the other the freedom they long for. Perhaps they have met, as Dodd suggests, as comrades in a previous life and will meet again as adversaries. Perhaps, as the film goes out of its way not to suggest, they are in love and unable to approach it. The result is that both men are unfulfilled, or unwilling to take what the other can offer and ultimately part ways still unable to provide anything real for themselves.