DIRECTED BY PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON
I do wonder what the viewers saw, when they claim that THE MASTER does not have a story or plot. Yes, it definitely functions more as a character piece than prestige storytelling but this is a film that seems to know exactly what it is doing. Often the stories of legend from the very beginning are the stories of the hero, the conqueror. THE MASTER is about Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), the animalistic drunkard of a man full of perversions and paint-thinner cocktails. This film is vague on what is the matter with Freddie, whether his problems are entirely alcohol, his time in the Navy, or his family background that suggests a history of insanity in his family line and having incestuous experiences. This guy is not your typical protagonist and not even likable a lot of the time (his first scenes have him jerking off and drunk) but when the character Lancaster Dodd talks at his daughter’s wedding being into the sensation of taking a lasso and trying to make a dragon into a dog, it offers insight into how he sees Freddie. Freddie is the dragon, the monster, the conquered of this story, but this is not a film of legend. This is a film through Freddie’s eyes.
THE MASTER is about a man whose life could very well wind up in alcohol poisoning coming across this mysterious and powerful but maligned organization called “The Cause”. It is not really how much “The Cause” changes Freddie but how much the meeting of the minds between Dodd and Quell effect both of them, how genuine and sincere is key, because this is not a conventional film of its period nor of its storytelling. It is, however, prestige acting and film-making.
Freddie Quell is not your Tom Brokaw’s idea of “The Greatest Generation” WWII veteran. Though he shows talent for photography, with some stunning classic photography stills recreated, he has been psychologically evaluated by the Navy and you come away that this is a sexually deprived man. Add to his dependence on alcohol and you have an unpredictable time-bomb. Freddie loses that photography job and a bunch of other jobs (that leave a body count) until he becomes a stowaway on the ship that Dodd has to marry off his daughter to one of his good soldiers of “The Cause”, a group that runs on Dodd’s belief that humans devolved from an inherent state of perfection into animals than the other way around while souls lived on from that state of perfection passing from person to person. Dodd does not kick Quell off but offers him help, in the form of “processing”, which is probably the film’s most pronounced correlation to Scientology, that is a series of repetition in questions. Hoffman and Phoenix are extraordinary in these scenes with such a range and sharp turns of emotions where their whole relationship is new but offers the Freddie Quell character to open up in a way he refused to professional help. We are opened to flashbacks of Freddie being far more normal, human, and romantic to a crush of a much younger girl. It is deeply personal scenes that the audience was never led to believe he was capable of being. But that scene of “processing” does not really trigger a real transformation even as there is a huge montage of Freddie going through the stages, exercises, and tests of “The Cause”.
Freddie is still an unpredictable force of nature, an animal who almost seems perfect as a heavy for Dodd’s whole operation but Freddie is the antithesis of what Dodd wants “The Cause” to be. Freddie is the great experiment of Dodd and although they bond over cocktails, Dodd still looks at Freddie in the abstract. For those in Dodd’s inner-circle that include his wife Mary Sue (Amy Adams), a name that could not be a better mask for the real woman, they do not buy Freddie as a person worthy of their resources and attention. The audience is probably led to think that way or at least have some level of ambiguity in how the film ends. What is there for Freddie? Is he back to square one and can he go in another direction that does not have him dead?
The film from Freddie’s perspective is an interesting one if realistic along with deeply sexual and psychological. He meets the Dodds but knows little about them, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Dodd surprisingly does not play him anywhere close to a charlatan but rather a pseudo-intellectual with childish warmth (something I was never actually sure PSH was ever capable of). We see scenes unfold from Freddie’s point of view that is carnal, including a cheeky, humorous, long, musical scene that is near Kubrickian in set-undressing. There are also scenes of pure cinema magic where we see the rack focus transition in a tracking shot from the focus of Freddie to the boat back to Freddie when he first discovers the boat that could possibly change his destiny.
Phoenix as Freddie is part Marlon Brando in the physical, animal acting and part Tarzan in just how uncomfortable he is sitting down, following orders, wearing suits, and walking around like he is emulating people he sees in a given moment than comfortable in his own skin. Anderson shoots his scenes in very long takes and for many people in the audience, stuff went a bit too long (particularly that subliminal set-undressing scene which shows real female bodies of the period of all sizes and ages) but Phoenix maintaining that level of anarchy and physicality in those takes- with Anderson’s director of photography Mihai Malimare, Jr. maintaining a tracking shot distance- is a real credit to his craft that is not at all a telegraphed bag of tricks.
The stunning cinematography, art direction, costumes, and Jonny Greenwood’s trembling score shows the Anderson with a film in clear control of what it is trying to do. Freddie is not the model WWII veteran but Anderson does not try to subvert the romantic notions of men in uniform of that era- Freddie is himself an odd duck. The naked bodies and sexuality is no mistake either, with Mary Sue showing her means of control over Lancaster, the naked bodies Freddie sees and even molds in the sand, and the flirtations by Lancaster’s daughter show the urges of everybody but since we see the film through Freddie’s eyes- we see a lot.
You can say Anderson is showing off with the Max Ophuls, and Stanley Kubrick inspired photography or with the Robert Altman and Orson Welles styled long takes. There is a lot of referential and reverential things going on in this film but it does not feel cold. There is an amount of hope that even if you think Freddie is too damaged to completely be ‘cured’ of whatever ails him, that he found something something satisfactory along the way seems like a step in the right direction. I do not think this film is nihilistic or making any generalizations about religion, cult of personalities, or even Scientology. I think this flips the story of the dragon and the lasso. What becomes of the dragon after avoiding being lassoed into the dog? Anderson leaves the audience to guess and really, I like my directors holding back on answering all the questions for me. THE MASTER may not end up being the best film of 2012, but it rightfully kicks off the prestige films for the season in a big way where the following films have to follow with a high-bar set.