Film Reviews

The Master Paul Thomas Anderson

Rating - 7/10

There’s a lot of people talking about The Master right now, about director Paul Thomas Anderson’s insistence on audiences seeing it projected in 70mm (the format in which it was shot) and on the supposed links to scientology. Both of these are worth talking about: In an era where digital is quickly overtaking film, having a director with such a devoted following stand up for film is a worthy cause (although if you side with proponents of the digital revolution, you may not agree), and seeing a film projected in 70mm is, from the first shot, breathtaking. The Master is not a cinematographic masterpiece that fully warrants all the hoopla, but there are some startling images of painterly precision, and they look all the better for…well, looking all the better.

Likewise, the scientology debate is not without its merits, either. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who looks similar to scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, plays Lancaster Dodd, a man without much background or motivation who heads cult-like religion “The Cause.” We don’t learn much about The Cause, but what we see is quite intense, and its book titles like The Saber do little to differentiate from its real-life inspiration.

Still, looking at The Master based solely on its resemblance to scientology is a disservice that films this audacious do not deserve. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is, as usual, more than good in his role—save for a couple explosive outbursts in quiet scenes that pop-up a bit too often in his work, he is both charismatic and intimidating as Dodd. But Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quells, a young World War II veteran who seeks answers in The Cause, gives the performance of a lifetime, and one that may be the best in well over a year. His facial expressions come with such nuance, his speech with such realistic inflection, that allusions to incest and war carry such a heavy weight it’s easy for the viewer to simply drop them and never look back. Laura Dern and Amy Adams hold their ground, but Phoenix steals the show.

 In many ways, it’s that acting that bails out Paul Thomas Anderson, who gets himself so deep in his own ambition that he cannot even reach the balls he must keep in the air. Luckily, Anderson’s approach is entirely observational. He challenges his audience to do the juggling for him, and if you can keep in mind that Quells is a veteran and may have PTSD, Dodd is either a lunatic or a leader or both, at least one of the two might be a homosexual, incest and loneliness are all over this film, and oh my God Joaquin Phoenix can act, you’re doing pretty well. Indeed, The Master’s subtext is provocative and understated enough to warrant multiple views.

Most gripping to this viewer is that Quells is a veteran. Anderson has made The Master at a time when America has tried and failed to take care of its veterans, and so maybe they have nowhere to turn except to charismatic, respected leaders who might just be crazy. We are told throughout the film that there is something wrong with Quells. We see it on different levels in almost every scene. But the man just got back from World War II. Why isn’t anyone helping him get back on his feet? Does he have anyone to do that? It’s hard to say for sure, but those questions haunt The Master from the first minute to the last.

Of course, there’s little certainty that we should be sympathizing with Quells. We learn about him mostly in vague hints but without the information that really tells us about him. We learn situations but not context. On one hand, it makes this dual-character all the more interesting. On the other, it almost feels like cheating, asking the audience to do the work that Anderson was too lazy or unimaginative to do. For the most part, it’s harder to sympathize with Dodd but equally fascinating to study him, as he is so high in charisma, trying to do so much for (or possibly to) this man who is too broken to break anymore, that it seems unlikely he’s as crazy as our vague glimpses of The Cause suggest.

It’s unfortunate that, for all his boldness, Anderson is not quite courageous enough to let these two simply interact, learn from each other, and take turns being the title character. Whenever Dodd’s bizarre habits and intense demands start to make a bit too much sense, there is a scene where he snaps, and it becomes easy to call him a villain, to agree with a character who says that “he makes it up as he goes along.” These scenes turn the film toward simplicity, and come close to invalidating the countless number of great character scenes that come before it. A tale of male love becomes a tale of manipulation.

Male love? There is no shortage of homoeroticism here. From the two rolling around in the grass to references to Dodd’s ex-wives to the fact that—and this is perhaps the best part of the story—their conversations are only compelling when Dodd’s women are gone. Something is at work here, and Quells over-emphasized heterosexuality makes it compelling in a way that very few relationships can be.

My fear is that there is sufficient evidence to equate Dodd’s suggested homosexuality with his lunacy. His outbursts and refusal to ever engage with anyone besides Quells highlight both of these issues, and in highlighting them together, a link is suggested implicitly. Is The Master homophobic? Honestly, it’s too vague to tell. If it is, it’s detestable. But it’s just as likely that it is about our treatment of veterans, our inability to hide our past scars, or our need for true companionship. Maybe the reason Dodd downplays these women—even when they strip naked between shots to dance with him—and instead pays so much attention is simply because he doesn’t love these women specifically, as opposed to not loving them generally; maybe Quells is the closest thing Dodd has to a friend, and The Cause is his desperate attempt to find companionship.

Whatever the answer is—and there may not be just one answer, or even any answers—getting there is alternatingly a respectably challenging work brought on by Anderson’s great eye and fantastic lead acting, or it is given away altogether by the film’s few missteps or obscured by laziness and opaqueness. Opaqueness. That’s the optimal word. The Master’s subtext is opaque, sometimes rewarding and sometimes maddening. Still, films this well made and this bold do not come along too often, and while you can debate whether the content lives up to what it thinks it does, it’s hard to dismiss The Master entirely, even if you don’t get on board or find the most repulsive parts the most insistent.