Today’s guest post comes from Evan Pulgino. Even explores The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and what makes it a movie you should go to the theater right now and see. I’d consider it simply because of the fact of 1. a Phoenix family member and 2. plot that features a cult-like religious leader, but Evan has more well-thought out and compelling reasons. He’s also a movie buff as you can see from his introduction:
“I fell in love with movies after a chance encounter with 2001: A Space Odyssey in college. Ever since then I’ve been consumed by trying to watch every great film ever made. Being a lifelong stutterer, the idea of expressing thoughts through a visual medium was a powerful draw. I prefer movies that feel like dreams. My favorite films are Barry Lyndon, Blade Runner, Blue Velvet, In the Mood for Love, and The Virgin Spring.”
I love Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. It is an enigmatic, beautiful, and powerful experience.
However, the reasons why I love it are the same reasons I find it difficult to write about. The process is like trying to nail clouds to the sky. I feel like I’m leaving behind half-finished artifacts of articles about The Master in my wake that will later to be misassembled or refashioned by future generations. I’ve been holding on too tight, trying to turn a piece of art into a puzzle that can be solved. Instead of trying to form a coherent single critique of the film I’m going to embrace the film’s ethereal tone and just list a
series of stray thoughts, observations, and ramblings about The Master.
The Master is about the relationship between two men, a navy seaman returning to America after World War II and the leader of a strange religious movement called The Cause (a thinly veiled version of Scientology). Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an animalistic, alcoholic, and disturbed veteran. His body is misshapen and his speech is often slurred. It’s unclear if his problems are PTSD or have some deeper root. Drifting from job to job, Freddie stows away on a ship setting sail from San Francisco. The ship is under the command of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) a self-proclaimed “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher.” Dodd is the master of The Cause and a great many of his followers have gathered on the New York bound ship for the wedding of his daughter. Dodd
keeps Quell on board for his ability to make hooch (with secret hidden ingredients like paint thinner or cleaning products) and eventually attempts to take Freddie under his wing for motivations that remain mysterious. The film focuses on the often-complicated relationship between Quell and Dodd. Sometimes it seems the men are locked in a power struggle for control, sometimes it’s a messy father-son relationship, and sometimes it feels like a love story.
Much has been said about the acting in the film. I don’t want to dwell too much on this aspect, but it definitely deserves mention. Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman tower in this film. Phoenix is one of the most underappreciated great actors working today, but is rarely in great movies. Here, he is given a great role in a great film and more than delivers. He is tortured, contorted, gaunt, and mysterious. His is a violent and powerful performance that belongs side-by-side with Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood as one of the top performances in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. Hoffman is spectacular as well. Charming, charismatic, and angry. There’s more than a touch of Orson Welles in his performance and Hoffman fills those shoes like no other actor could. His character may or may not be a charlatan, but you like him, admire him, and understand him.
I’m sort of a sucker for movies about religion. More specifically movies about the power and appeal of religion, but that also understand the feelings of imprisonment and confusion that religion creates. I believe that The Master is about much more than Scientology or even religion in general, but I can’t help feeling drawn into viewing the film through a religious prism. I love the scene in the first third of the film where Freddie undergoes processing (the film’s version of Scientology’s auditing) for the first time. You can feel how the processing system is designed to penetrate through barriers that the subject has built
to break a person’s will. The two actors are masterful in this scene. The dialogue starts to take on the qualities of music. At first, Freddie seems to be playing with the master, but eventually the systematic manner of the questioning breaks him and the film gracefully transitions into a dream-like flashback that is a source of his pain. When Freddie comes out of the flashback he is reborn. You can see in his eyes that he is a believer, even if he never really is quite sure of what exactly he believes. For better or worse the two men have genuinely bonded. There’s an emotional bond that is formed between believers and spiritual exploration. Also, my second viewing of The Master also brought out a sense of rebellion in Freddie that I didn’t perceive the first time around. I initially thought that The Master was a riff on A Clockwork Orange and that Freddie is an Alex-type character that the master attempts to control. But now I see the film as Freddie’s journey to heal himself via The Cause and eventual realization that Lancaster Dodd is a fake. Freddie’s true rebirth comes when he rejects The Cause and sees through the master’s lies.
I love that this movie is fluid and dreamlike and open to interpretation. I’m less interested in a movie that is anchored to narrative logic than a movie that is trying to inspire emotions, ideas, and thoughts. Film is an inherently dreamlike medium and I love movies that embrace that quality and let the audience explore the worlds they create. The Master has a lot of rabbit holes to get lost in. The film seems to enjoy letting go of reality the same way a madman lets go of the wheel of a speeding car. The Master does this with both large and small details.
A general sense of uneasiness permeates the entire film, but a scene about half way through removes the floor out from under you. Lancaster Dodd and his followers are staying at the house of a believer in Philadelphia. During their first night in the house he
sings a bawdy song to the group. Nothing seems out of the ordinary until mid-scene all the women in the scene appear naked without transition. The scene straddles the line between reality and fantasy. All of a sudden you are unsure if you are seeing something that is actually happening in the world of the film or the dream of a character. You never quite regain your footing in the world from that point on. Small strange details seem larger and more unusual. I loved the sequence when Freddie wakes up in a movie theater with an usher handing him a telephone with the master on the other end of the line.
I also love getting lost in the details of The Master. The clothes, the sets, and ordinary objects that feel extraordinary. I attribute the enjoyment of these details to the shooting of the film in 65mm. This is an intimate movie shot in an epic format. Movies are rarely shot on film anymore, let alone 65mm. 65mm is a larger film stock with a much higher resolution. This creates not only a higher quality image, but also captures more detail in the images themselves. Although in most theaters in the US you’ll be seeing a 35mm conversion, the effect is remarkable. The images of the film pop off the screen and become real. I’ve found myself noticing small, inconsequential details that contribute to the mood of the film. In my first viewing I fixated on an image early in the film where Lancaster Dodd is presiding over the wedding of his daughter on the deck of the ship. I remember being able to feel the texture of the clothes in that scene and loving the way Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s hair flew in the wind. My second viewing I just stared at the motion of a fan at a gathering of The Cause. These details only occupy a few seconds of screen time but they had aesthetic importance.
I feel like I’m not even scratching the surface of The Master. There’s so much more in this film to discuss and analyze and praise. After two screenings the film still feels elusive and mysterious to me. It’s a movie I want to obsess over and reinterpret over the years, reviewing it through different viewpoints and perspectives. It is a rich work of art that refuses to be categorized, defined, or ignored. Maybe one day its spell will no longer move me, but for now I’m a willing acolyte.
Other articles about The Master:
There Will Be Blood // Paul Thomas Anderson’s equally exhilarating previous film with a stellar
performance from Daniel Day Lewis
Higher Ground // Vera Farmiga’s beautiful exploration of the power, hopefulness, and
inadequacy of belief
F for Fake // Orson Welle’s charming, deceitful, and mysterious “documentary” about
charlatans, liars, and fakery