The Master: Finding Your Anchor When Lost At Sea
If Paul Thomas Anderson is the master of anything, he’s the master of tales of men angered by sexual inadequacy. Tom Cruise in Magnolia, Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, Mark Wahlberg in the 80s in Boogie Nights– these characters’ demons manifest themselves in violence, profanity, misogyny, and substance abuse. In his newest film, the intimate yet sprawling The Master, Freddie Quell suffers from all of the above. He’s a lost man, committed only to honesty and freedom, while longing for a place in the world. When he encounters Lancaster Dodd, a man with a place in the world longing for honesty and freedom, a platonic love story begins: two men desperate to find that which can hopefully make them whole. The Master is a gorgeous film, rich with imagery and color, full of Anderson’s trademark stylized dialogue, and home to two of the finest performances you’ll find all year. Obvious pun notwithstanding, it’s truly masterful work.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is lost. His time at war is elegantly summed up by a simple shot focused on his solitary helmet… a shared experience in which you feel horrifyingly alone. With his fellow soldiers, he tells dirty jokes and mimes sexual acts with a woman made of sand. During this ritual, he goes too far, alienates the other soldiers, and retreats to masturbate in the ocean. This theme of sexual frustration resulting in alienation recurs throughout the film. In a Rorschach test upon rejoining society, all he sees are sex organs in various combinations. We watch as he sits in during meetings about post-traumatic stress disorder, but you get the sense that Freddie wasn’t damaged by his combat experience so much as the further isolation it causes– we’re given several shots of Freddie alone, passed out, separated from the rest of the ship, drifting aimlessly at sea.
The sand woman incident indicates a deep sexual frustration in Freddie. Every incident with sexual context within the body of the film leads one to believe Freddie could be impotent or perhaps even a virgin. We hear about undercurrents of incest with his aunt during his processing, but the details are dubious– is he damaged by the indiscretions of his past or was he merely using his incestual sexual urges to cover up his own lack of experience? The combined feelings of lust and fear serve as a possible explanation for his non-stop drinking– at the mall, he tries to grope at a salesgirl, but when she puts off sex until later, Freddie makes sure he’s fully liquored up before the date, causing him to embarrassingly pass out… but potentially sparing him the embarrassment of the actual deed. It can’t be a coincidence that during his time at sea, his means of getting drunk is to drain the fluids from the overtly-phallic torpedos.
Speaking of his drink of choice, rarely does he consume a traditional alcohol. He instead resorts to paint thinner and other corrosive liquids. Perhaps this is symbolic of the stripping away of the artifice that most members of society have between their honesty and their behavior in public. Freddie has no such artifice– when he sees a man taking photos for his family and seems to resent his success and lifestyle, he simply attacks him. There’s very little holding back, especially once Freddie is boozed up, which is most of the time. (Humorously, we see a very similar shot later of Freddie photographing his master in the same pose, but Freddie doesn’t then have the same reaction of anger and resentment.) Phoenix’s entire depiction of Freddie is twisted, from his constantly-shut eye to his speech patterns to his slurring of words to his coiled up spine– if you’re looking for a literal reason why Freddie has become such an unnatural figure, perhaps the unnatural chemicals he consumes would be the cause.
When Freddie first meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Dodd consumes the remainder of Freddie’s drink and demands he makes more. In return, Freddie serves on Dodd’s boat as an “able seamen” (the pun certainly intentional). Hoffman’s depiction of Dodd is the polar opposite acting style to Phoenix; Phoenix takes the Method approach of mumbling, underselling phrases, and inflicting actual pain on the body, whereas Hoffman gives a traditional theatrical depiction, full of hyper-articulation, grand gestures, swelling voices, and complete control. Dodd is a theatrical man– his whole business is theater. He wrote a book called The Cause, a cultish manner of healing the body through realizing your existence of past lives. He asks people to do exercises that sound like exaggerated versions of games most young students play in acting classes: sense memory, image projection, emotional recall. Dodd makes Freddie feel well in the first series of questions he processes him with (in a scene that will surely, ironically, be done in acting classes in the near future) by allowing Freddie to share his burdens and stresses in a safe environment so that he might find more emotional control in the near future.
This opposite approach to the character is appropriate since Dodd’s problems oppose those of Freddie’s. Dodd has a place in the world: he has money, interested investors, a product to sell, a journey to take. However, Dodd struggles with the knowledge that his product doesn’t actually do what he’s telling people it does. He cherishes the short-term successes caused by the inherent catharsis in his exercises… but he realizes when questioned that the tapestry he has woven could very easily be unraveled. He preaches about humans controlling their emotions, yet when someone tries to prove his system is a fraud, he resorts to shouting vile names, reverting to the same animal behavior he scorns. This isn’t because he’s angry at them for not believing– he’s angry that they’re right. He phrases his answers carefully when speaking to disbelievers or the law, but Hoffman’s pauses and glances to the side reveal a world of fear. It’s not even so much a fear of exposure, it’s a fear that perhaps his system really *can’t* work. You absolutely feel in Dodd’s behavior a sincere desire to cure and to be the master of these disciple’s fates. He sees in Freddie not only something admirable, but the perfect specimen: here’s a man who, unlike these other rich fuddy-duddies, truly needs help and guidance.
The flip side to the success and the placement within society that Dodd has and Freddie seems to need is the lack of freedom. Freddie is free: free to drink, free to chase skirts, free to swear, free to fight. Responsibilities necessitate a level of control that Dodd possesses… but one senses his envy. He drinks and acts bawdy more frequently upon Freddie’s arrival, trying to test just how far he can enjoy freedom without losing what he has. Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams, in a beautifully controlled performance that will likely go under-appreciated) will not let Freddie’s influence sway Dodd away from his mission. She pleasures Dodd into a sink, reminding him to stay focused… and he is helpless in her hands. Dodd, unlike Freddie, gets to experience sexual pleasure, but he loses control as a result– Dodd’s wife, behind the scenes, unquestionably wears the proverbial pants. Contrast that moment with Freddie, who finds one day that Dodd’s daughter has placed her hand on his crotch. Instead of giving way to sexual urges and ceding to the longings of his groins, he grabs a bottle, shuts her down, and maintains his loyalty to Dodd and the Cause.
But what Freddie believes is the path to long term stability isn’t as fulfilling as he believes up front. When he begins to hear more of the details about past lives, he begins to privately question the legitimacy of The Cause, while at the same time coming to blow with anyone who publicly questions Dodd. He wants so badly for the Cause to be true, for his friend and guardian to have steered him in the right direction, that he earnestly wants to destroy the Cause’s naysayers. Anderson’s imagery spells it out pretty clearly: our first image of the film is water, much of the beginning of the film takes place on or surrounded by or near water… and then, once we join the Cause, many scenes move into the desert. The Promised Land is empty and unfulfilling, and Freddie is now stuck looking for nourishment. In one telling scene, Dodd takes Freddie out to the desert to play a game called Pick A Point, in which you drive to a spot as fast as you can and come back. When Freddie starts driving, sees the sand around him, and realizes the dried-up place he’s approaching, you can predict his response.
There is so much to discuss with this film. The use of the respective color schemes of Dodd and Freddie. The lyrics of the songs scoring certain montages. The repetition of dialogue and what each repetition or pause before repetition means. The exquisite framing. The juxtaposition between this film’s take on religion and the take from his last film, There Will Be Blood. Individual scenes are filled with meaning… such as Dodd’s showtune in which Freddie sees all the women in the room naked; or the flashbacks to a teenage girl named Doris who was Freddie’s only real chance at romance; or the prison cell shot in which Freddie is freaking out physically while Dodd remains perfectly still. This film is less immediately emotionally accessible than Anderson’s more epic films, full of characters wearing relatable father issues on their sleeves– The Cause is all about humans attempting to control emotions, giving us less to immediately latch onto and sympathize with. However, unlike most of even the best filmmakers alive, Anderson is committed to cramming each frame with information, making the more intimate efforts sometimes feel even more epic than the wider scope pictures. I’ve seen the film only once and I couldn’t take mental notes faster than Anderson gave me information to jot down. Even if this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea or even if you feel Anderson uses his formidable skills to cover up an absence of something meaningful to say… The Master is still undeniably a must-see event that I couldn’t recommend strongly enough. It’s challenging cinema for the thinking person, with the power to wrinkle your brain and quicken your pulse.