Movie Review: The Master (2012)
Five years ago I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” and was disappointed. Last week, I watched it again and was stunned by how good it was. This week I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” and was disappointed. Will I be stunned by how good it is if I see it again in five years? Or will I see it the way I saw it this week: a powerfully directed film whose story doesn’t resonate?
What’s your name?
Both movies focus on a clash between two men, one of whom is religious or quasi-religious, none of whom is likeable. The battle in “Blood” is between capitalist forces, represented by oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis), and spiritual forces, represented by preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), and it’s never much of a battle. Plainview has too much will; he’s the triumph and tragedy of it. He dominates the movie and dominates Eli. By the end, the masks both men wear—Plainview pretends to care about community but despises humanity; Eli is a weak-willed charlatan—have fallen to the point where Eli admits to living in a Godless universe while Plainview commits murder (again) without repentance. Thus capitalism crushes us all. With a bowling pin.
In “The Master,” the clash is between Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a Navy serviceman broken by World War II, and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an L. Ron Hubbardish figure whose cult Freddie wanders into five years after the war. What’s their clash? Initially, it’s drawing out Freddie. It’s understanding him and his problems. There’s a great scene where Dodd, with his repetitive methods (“What’s your name?”; “What’s your name?”; “What’s your name?”), finally gets Freddie to open up. And he does. Freddie reveals himself. He says his father’s dead from drink and his mother’s in an asylum and he had sex with a family member, his aunt, three times, and he left behind a girl in Boston whom he never went to see after the war and he doesn’t know why. It’s an exhilarating scene, for us and for him. We all wear masks; we are all trapped by our past. Saying the truth can momentarily set us free.
But revelation for Freddie does not lead to rehabilitation; his problems persist. He remains childishly obsessed with sex. He remains violent. He continues to drink his awful, war-era drinks of Lysol and gasoline and paint thinner. One such drink kills an old Filipino man in Salinas. That’s what Freddie’s running from when he stows away aboard the Alethia (“truth”; “disclosure”), Dodd’s ship bound from San Francisco, through the canal, and to New York City. But it’s not Dodd’s ship.
Peace is here
“The Master” opens to a soundtrack full of discordant music from Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood. We’re on a Pacific island beach waiting out the end of the war, and Freddie, one Navy man of many, is already isolated from the rest. He’s cutting coconuts while the other men wrestle on the beach. They make a sand woman on the beach, hair flowing, legs open, and Freddie gets on top and starts pumping away. It’s funny for a second, then gets embarrassing fast. Freddie gets too into it. There’s too much need there. When we hear the Japanese surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, Freddie and other men are aboard their ship searching for, I believe, gasoline, from the ship’s missiles. To drink. “Peace is here,” the announcer intones. You look at Freddie and think: No, it’s not.
Freddie’s early, peaceless, post-war drifting is fascinating. A military shrink, smoking away, gives him a Rorschach test, telling him there are no right or wrong answers. Freddie’s first three responses to the ink blots are thus: 1) a pussy; 2) a cock inside a pussy; 3) a cock upside down. The psychiatrist sighs. Apparently there are right and wrong answers.
In a perfectly rendered, late 1940s department store, Freddie becomes a portrait photographer. America has just gone through a global depression and a world war and everyone wants to put all that shit behind them and display its best face to the world (“Get thee behind me, Satan” sings Ella Fitzgerald on the soundtrack). That face turns out to be a false face. It’s cute kids and young couples and there’s strain in every smile. Freddie, a young man, takes their pictures, but he already looks like an old man. Phoenix’s performance is amazing and Oscar-worthy. It’s like they took him, broke him in half, and put him back the wrong way. He’s hunched and painfully thin. He keeps his arms akimbo like a chicken, like he’s holding up his back. The post-war male sex symbols, Brando and James Dean and Elvis, were slouched men with curled lips and unruly hair slicked back, and Freddie has elements of each of these but there’s nothing sexy about him at all. He’s the anti-sex symbol. He drains sex from any situation. Martha the salesgirl (Amy Ferguson), whose job it is to walk the floor displaying dresses for sale, displays more to Freddie in a back room, and he pokes at her nipples like a 4-year-old, and pouts when she puts them away. He’s old in appearance and adolescent in his prurience, and he loses his job when he starts a fight with a fat man who’s getting his picture taken for his wife. He’s FUBAR.
This doesn’t change aboard the Alethia. He affects normality among the youngish men and women untouched by war (it’s 1950 now) but he has no place. There’s a hilarious moment when, surrounded by women listening to a taped recording of Dodd’s book, “The Cause,” in which Dodd intones, again and again, that Man is not an animal, that we are not part of the animal kingdom, that we are not ruled by our emotions, Freddie makes eyes at all of the women, then writes one of them a note: “Do you want to fuck?”
He remains violent but now he’s violent for The Cause. During the course of the movie he attacks anyone who attacks or doubts Dodd, including a New York party guest, John More (Christopher Evan Welch), surely named after St. Thomas; Dodd’s son, Val (Jesse Plemons), who tells Freddie, “He’s making it up as he goes.”; the Philadelphia police, who come to arrest Dodd; and Bill William (Kevin J. O’Connor), an acolyte who feels Dodd’s second book is a failure and could’ve been edited down to a three-page pamphlet.
“Peace is here”: Freddie Quell celebrates the end of WWII
So what is The Cause? Anderson keeps it sketchy. Dodd claims, among other things, that our problems in this life are caused by unresolved issues in previous lives. Apparently our previous lives go back thousands or trillions of years. Yes, trillions with a “t,” sir, Dodd says to More at an upper east side New York coming-out party. More says that some of Dodd’s methods sound like hypnosis, to which Dodd responds that it’s de-hypnosis. He says that man is asleep. It’s a good line. But he is increasingly agitated at being questioned. More reminds him that “Good science, by definition, allows for more than one opinion. Otherwise, you merely have the will of one man, which is the basis of cult.” Dodd’s response begins well but he winds up ruled by emotions: “If you already know the answer to your questions, why ask them—PIG FUCK!” Cut to: our group, in the elevator, on the way down.
If Freddie is a wrecked man, prone to bursts of sex and violence, Dodd is an ebullient man who cannot abide dissent. Others call him ‘The Master’ but he lives in a post-World War II democracy that has just swept away the would-be masters of the world. Dissent lives. Dodd is the master of a small domain forced to live in a larger one, and he and his group, like all beginning religions, are forced to wander in the wilderness: from San Francisco to New York to Philadelphia to Phoenix, where The Cause, he hopes, will be reborn. But it’s a downward trajectory. All the while, thanks to Dodd’s outbursts, they’re losing adherents.
Except it can’t be Dodd’s fault, can it? He’s the Master, isn’t he? So they look for someone else to blame. And there’s Freddie. Erratic, chicken-winged Freddie. In an inner-circle, dinner-table pow-wow after Dodd returns from a Philadelphia lock-up, Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), she of the sweet face and bitter, iron will, counsels excommunicating him. The inner circle accuses Freddie of being what he is (erratic) and what he isn’t (a spy). Dodd’s daughter from a previous marriage, Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), accuses Freddie of desiring her sexually, when, we see, she made the pass at him. Once more, we accuse others of our own crimes. World without end.
But Freddie isn’t tossed out of The Cause; he leaves. He flees. In Phoenix, Dodd’s second book, “The Split Sabre,” is unveiled, to disappointment among adherents, including Bill William, whom Freddie pummels, and Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern), whose largesse they relied upon in Philadelphia. She comes to Dodd with a great, strained smile on her face, and asks about page 13, where the language for “the processing”—the near-hypnotic state Dodd puts adherents under—has been changed from “Can you recall...[past lives]” to “Can you imagine...[past lives].” She feels this is muting the Master’s message. The Master explains, vaguely, and we get this exchange:
Helen: But if the new—
Dodd: WHAT DO YOU WANT!?!
The outburst shocks her; then she gives him the dirtiest of looks. Scales have fallen, as they have fallen from others’ eyes. It’s shortly after this, riding motorcycles in the desert, that Freddie leaves the group.
Members of “The Cause” on the elevator down. Like Lonesome Rhodes before them.
Maybe in the next life
Should the movie have ended there? I wonder. Instead, Anderson shows us Freddie, still full of tics and mannerisms and small lies, finally returning to the girl in Lynn, Mass., but the girl, Doris, doesn’t live there anymore. Her Irish mother tells Freddie she’s married, to Jim Day, and now lives in Alabama. We get a great line from Anderson, and a great line reading from Phoenix: “Jim Day, Jim Day, that Jim Day?” Freddie suddenly realizes the girl of his dreams is now named Doris Day, like the movie star in Hollywood’s dream factory, and he chuckles over this. In the very next shot he’s asleep in a cinema balcony while a “Casper the Friendly Ghost” cartoon plays; and he dreams of getting a phone call from Dodd inviting him to England. As dreams go, it turns out to be fairly accurate.
Oddly, The Cause, which seemed in its death rattle in Arizona, is now flourishing. It’s institutionalized. It resides in a big schoolhouse, and Dodd reigns from behind a grand desk in a gigantic room with 50-foot ceilings, and we get our final confrontation between our two protagonists, just as we got our final confrontation between Plainview and Sunday in the bowling alley in “Blood.” This one is less bloody. The brutality is in the words:
Dodd: If you leave here I don’t ever want to see you again... Or you can stay.
Freddie (grins): Maybe in the next life.
Dodd (serious): If we meet again in the next life, you will be my sworn enemy and I will show you no mercy.
There’s a kind of knowing gentleness, almost grace, to the way Freddie says his “next life” comment. He doesn’t believe in it but he’s throwing it out as a gift to Dodd, who throws it back in Freddie’s face. The people of The Cause, pampered and puffy and immaculate, need to look to previous lives for answers to their problems. Freddie, rail-thin Freddie, doesn’t. He’s seen the horrors in this one. His problems have resulted from this one. He knows.
Then we see him walking down an English path. We see him hook up with an English girl. He uses some of the lines Dodd used on him back on the Alethia. We get a flashback to his sand woman in the Pacific, and we see the progress he’s made, from sand woman to real woman, and the movie ends and the lights go up.
And we go: “Huh.”
Lancaster Dodd: pampered, puffy, immaculate.
Slow boat to China
What’s the movement in the movie? Freddie goes from being massively fucked up to being slightly fucked up, while the cult he joins seems on a slow, downward trajectory—rootless and wandering and full of sophomore slumps—until it leaps, off-screen, into an established institution in England. How did that happen? How did Dodd make that happen? We last see him losing disciples in the desert and then suddenly he’s a massive success in England. Why? And why England? Isn’t this the more interesting story? How come it doesn’t interest P.T. Anderson?
There’s a good quote from Norman Mailer on the nature of art:
Art obviously depends upon incomplete communication. A work which is altogether explicit is not art, the audience cannot respond with their own creative act of the imagination, that small leap of the faculties which leaves one an increment more exceptional than when one began.
Unfortunately, Anderson’s communication is too incomplete. We leave with nothing but questions:
- After the Dodds speak of excommunicating Freddie because he’s beyond help, they force him to walk between a wall and a window for an unspecified amount of time. Is this to a) drive him out; b) drive him crazy; c) control him; or d) something else?
- In Philadelphia, Dodd sings his “a roving” song, and suddenly all of the women in the room are naked. I assume the nakedness is in Freddie’s head. But was Elizabeth Dodd’s pass at him also in his head? If it wasn’t, why did she do it? To get him to stay? To repay him for attacking More? Are there elements of Sam Peckinpah there?
- Does The Cause do Freddie good? Does he need it? Does it help?
- What does the accuracy of Freddie’s movie-theater dream about Dodd’s phone call say about our unconscious lives? Or what does it say about what P.T. Anderson thinks of our unconscious lives?
- Is Lancaster Dodd a closeted homosexual?
This last would explain why Dodd keeps Freddie and his erratic, animal nature around. It would help explain several scenes.
During the naked “a roving” scene, Peggy, pregnant and naked and in the background, stares at Freddie with something like concern in her eyes. Does she see his lust? Is that it? And does she assume the lust is for Dodd, who’s center-stage? And does she already suspect that Dodd reciprocates? Because in the very next scene, Dodd is in the middle of his nighttime ablutions, brushing his teeth, when Peggy comes over and jacks him off, telling he can do whatever he wants with whomever he wants just so she doesn’t hear about it. Initially I assumed she was referring to the women in the cult. But Freddie is a more likely culprit.
Then in the final scene Dodd suddenly sings to Freddie, and Freddie sheds a tear. This is what he sings:
I'd like to get you
On a slow boat to China
All to myself alone
Is this Dodd’s moment of revelation? Or does he never truly reveal himself the way that Freddie does, or the way that Plainview did? You could argue that Anderson doesn’t show us Dodd’s true nature because that is the basis of cult: never to truly reveal yourself. Or you could argue that that is the basis of Paul Thomas Anderson and his movies.
“The Master” is deeply felt and rendered, beautifully shot and art-directed, and acted by artists and professionals. It’s also a failure in terms of story. But I would still rather watch it again than almost any movie released this year.
Get thee behind me, Satan: Our strained, post-war innocence.