Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master, is a provocative must-see for movie lovers everywhere. Though various critics and audiences have found the film to be “challenging,” I am hesitant to use this particular adjective for I suspect that readers will take this to mean that watching the film is, in truth, an arduous endeavor (as is all too often the case when someone states that a film is “challenging”). Thankfully, Anderson’s film is just as entertaining as it is thought provoking. Fueled by superlative performances (the acting alone in this picture was worth the price of admission) and an intriguing story on the convergence of two opposites. Anderson’s vision is an authentic reflection on friendship, power dynamics, religion, and the search for meaning in a seemingly bleak world.
The film is shot in 65mm and displayed in 70mm for theatres across the country. The images, compiled by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., are simply stunning. Most impressive is his use of luscious pops of color in otherwise naturalistic and dim-lit settings. The enigmatic score composed by Jonny Greenwood further enhances the film’s visual aesthetic. Though it is similar to the work he produced for There Will Be Blood (also directed by Anderson), The Master’s score is dreamier in tone, more hypnotic. The production design and the costume design should be lauded as well.
The real triumph of The Master is the way it’s able to take the old proverbial saying of “opposites attract,” and turn it into a head-spinning dissection of human relationships. In one corner lies Freddie Quell (magnificently portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix). Freddie is a World War II veteran that embodies pure animal instinct. He is crude, strange, troubled, and erratic, yet possesses an explicit charm. He’s so utterly authentic that you can’t help but feel like a bit of a phony watching him in action. Not to mention, he’s also the cause of frequent hilarity. There’s a scene in which Freddie takes a Rorschach test and responds to each ink blob with statements such as “that’s a pussy,” “those are tits” and “those are ladies cupping cum.” It’s a great sequence.
On the other side of the spectrum, we find Lancaster Dodd (played with bravado by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is the high-minded leader of “The Cause,” a religious and philosophical movement similar in nature to that of Scientology. When he isn’t calling his opponents and doubters “pig fucks” in moments of repressed rage, he appears to be a perfectly sensible man: smart, idealistic, and in control. In these two characters first encounter with one another, Dodd seems very drawn to Freddie. He senses Freddie’s sincerity and admires his unfiltered attitude, for it is what he is lacking. Though Freddie is initially incredulous towards Dodd, he eventually warms to him and begins to regard him as something of a father figure.
Though it is stated repeatedly within the film that it is Dodd who is “The Master,” there has been some debate as to whether or not it is in fact Dodd’s wife Peggy (played in a cryptic fashion by Amy Adams). This is a very intriguing thought since it does indeed appear that Peggy is the subtle force behind her husband and all of his decisions. However, I don’t believe it to be quite that simple. Or, rather, I don’t believe that’s exactly what the picture is getting at. Throughout the story, we see how relationships are portrayed as a constant “becoming” of sorts. In one instance, someone is on top (the master), and the next, they’re on bottom (the slave). With people constantly attempting to find themselves through others, the relationships are never fully concordant. These relationships are presented as artistic projects in which tensions aid in the creating of meaning for the people involved, even if power dynamics are constantly shifting.
This is just yet another facet of the film, and doesn’t downplay the fact that Freddie’s friendship with Dodd and acceptance of “The Cause” may provide him with some significant meaning in his life, even if it’s transient. However it certainly doesn’t hide the ugliness perpetually committed in the name of faith. What it does offer is a fairly sympathetic view of those looking to faith for answers. Still, the film as a whole doesn’t provide many answers. This might annoy some but I believe this aspect of the film is its greatest strength; it is what Anderson leaves out that makes the film so irresistible (and a great conversation starter). Ultimately, I have postulated (with much sadness) that this film will be largely ignored. Nevertheless I am elated that someone had the courage and the smarts to bring this project to its fruition. The Master is a powerful and provocative movie that achieves, frequently all at once, an enigmatic, entertaining, and dazzling effect.
Written by: Daniel Bogran