No doubt there are legions of Paul Thomas Anderson fans out there who think he leapt from the womb a fully-formed genius. Or, at least, he’d become one by the time he made Boogie Nights. I’’ readily admit I didn’t much care for that broad-canvas take on the porn industry. His follow-up, the vignette-structured Magnolia received even more accolades, if anything. I found it an interminable trial, the colourful Tom Cruise scene aside. But I enjoyed There Will Be Blood, even if its advocates went slightly overboard (it has some serious third act problems). The Master seems to have received a decidedly mixed response. It resisted Oscar attention outside of the performance categories, and generally appears to have been perceived as more difficult and less approachable than much of his previous work (I think Punchdrunk Love remains elusive to most people, not least Adam Sandler fans). So maybe it’s fitting that I could recommend it as his best film by a wide margin; the charges of inaccessibility are to some extent justified, but it seems appropriate to the subject matter.
Perhaps part of the reason I liked the film so much is that PTA has reined in his tendency to over-indulge (instances of which include the Paul Dano character’s increasingly Looney Tunes’ demeanour in There Will Be Blood, or the bloated running time and Marmite moment sing-song in Magnolia). Maybe it’s just that he has become more focused on his subject matter and characters in his last few films.
The Master seems less concerned with being an interrogation of, or an attack on, (a thinly-veiled version of) Scientology, than with exploring the platonically passionate love story between Philip Seymour Hoffman’s charismatic Master, Lancaster Dodd, and Joaquin Phoenix’s alcoholic drifter (Freddie Quell). They both mirror and exert a magnetic pull on each other, one animalistic (to use Dodd’s word) the other apparently refined. Freddie appears to find something to believe in when he hitches aboard Dodd’s yacht. Dodd is attracted to Freddie’s uncontrolled appetites (and his ominous homebrew) while Freddie is initially bemused and then, following his first processing session with Dodd, bewitched. Anderson makes this scene as intense and riveting as anything he’s filmed, but also exciting. The thrill Freddie feels at this awakening of something within him (even if it is just someone showing an interest) is palpable.
There’s much here that is ambiguous, both in terms of the characters and Anderson’s resistance to establishing a viewpoint on Dodd’s movement (“The Cause”). Then, where would the nuance be found in making Dodd an outright charlatan? And the goal isn’t to set up The Cause as a cult that requires investigation in order to expose the truth (as in the recent Sound of my Voice). We’re clearly supposed to shift our perspective with Freddie (the shallow focus that accompanies his point of view is striking), so the first half of the film is frequently as beguiling as it is engrossing. As Freddie becomes less sure of his Master, so the pace slackens and the PTA’s narrative becomes less driven and slightly listless. At least, I suspect that’s the intent; the effect can’t help but ensure that the second half is less overtly arresting.
If we see the film through Freddie’s eyes, I don’t think we’re really encouraged to identify with him. The first indication of doubts over the movement come to him through Dodd’s son (Jesse Plemons); “He’s making all this up as he goes along”. Which seems to trigger a recognition within Freddie; soon after, when he and Dodd are incarcerated, he unleashes a torrent of abuse, declaiming Dodd (who in turn exhibits most unmasterly rage). His encounters with those decrying the movement invariably result in violence, most likely an expression of his own doubts. Then, the challenging of Dodd directly elicits only a veneer of politeness (“If you already know the answers to the questions then why ask, pigfuck!” he exclaims, finally losing it with a cynic).
There are walls between both PTA’s characters and the audience; we’re never privy to whether Dodd really holds conviction over the message of the Cause (we see his ire, and we see others express concerns, but he remains elusive). He loses it with disciple Laura Dern when she is impelled to call him on his inconsistencies (“This is the new work!”). Wife Peggy (Amy Adams), recognising the pull towards insobriety and excess exerted by Freddie, masturbates her husband into submission while laying down the law in no uncertain terms. And his last meeting with Freddie indicates in no uncertain terms the dark impulses of a cult leader spurned. But character flaws are no barrier to self-denial, or even genuine delusion.
Even when we are granted access to his inner life, Freddie remains enigmatic. The only thing we can be certain of is the bond between him and Dodd; it is surely the reason that he returns to see the Master in England, not because of any faith (indeed, for all his flaws, it is this lack of self-deception that sets Freddie apart from Dodd and The Cause. Dodd may well be impressed by Freddie’s relative freedom; he asks him to “let the rest of us know” when Freddie is no longer serving a master, which raises the question of who Dodd’s master is. Amy Adams hovers at her husband’s shoulder, and we don’t know if she is just the strict principal keeping her husband on the straight-and-narrow, and according discipline to the movement, or the fully-fledged puppet master (there is a suggestive scene in which she appears to be dictating while Dodd is hunched in the background, typing away).
PTA won’t be drawn into a party line on this cult; it is what it is. The infighting and manipulation, the brainwashing and impropriety, are all on display. But, to an extent, this seems like window-dressing. It’s the main relationship that is the key (whether this is, as some have suggested, a representation of L Ron Hubbard’s friendship with Errol Flynn, or a Fight Club-style personification of the two different sides of Hubbard’s nature – the one he was in his formative years and the one he became).
However limited, Freddie’s encounter with Dodd has changed him. Sure, we don’t know that the slightly more functional sex-obsessed alcoholic we see at the end isn’t headed for exactly the same place (PTA includes an explicit visual reference to his first scene in the film, so maybe he thinks he hasn’t changed at all). But Freddie at least seems more aware of what he is and is not. And, if there is a change, it has come not through the mechanics of the cult but through a meaningful relationship (given his predilections, Freddie really ought to have become a disciple and advocate of Wilhelm Reich!)
The cinematography from Mihai Malaimaire Jr is exquisite; the lack of even an Oscar nomination shows that the Academy has its head up its arse. Likewise, the playful, quizzical score from Johnny Greenwood. Phoenix and Hoffman are both outstanding while Adams makes a strong impression with relatively limited screen time (at least they all received nominations).
PTA could be back on the screen before long with an adaptation of Inherent Vice (a much shorter gap between projects this time, then). I have a feeling that The Master may be retrospectively seen as his most rewarding and resonant work. Of his films to date it is certainly the most opaque.