It certainly says something about The Master that Sean, John, and I have all seen the film and yet for the last week and a half have been waffling over the very act of reviewing it. It’s a film full of lots of ideas and questions that I guess are just a little too baffling for a couple of schmoes like us to really give a thorough critique of, but I’ll try my best. And as hard of a film as it’s been to wrestle with, I wouldn’t have expected anything less from Paul Thomas Anderson, a writer-director who with his last film There Will Be Blood basically launched himself up into the ubiquitous position of Great American Filmmaker.
When you pull it apart, The Master is about a lot of things. However, on the surface it’s about Freddie Quell, a naval officer (played by an often riveting Joaquin Phoenix) who returns home from World War II and finds himself dealing with a wealth of pent-up rage and lack of direction, much of it fueled by his unweildy sexual obsessions and his penchant for alcohol. He then stumbles (literally) upon a wealthy writer named Lancaster Dodd, who has pronounced himself the leader a Scientology-like religion, and the charasmatic Dodd instantly takes a liking to the troubled Quell. From there, the film dissolves into an ever intesifying battle of the wills, in which the characters constantly skirt the line between love and hate, all while both characters struggle to better themselves in the name of The Cause.
The Scientology-inspired aspect of the film is certainly there, but it’s mainly just a jumping off point for some brilliant pieces of acting and staging. Anderson has certainly showed in the past that he’s capable of creating epic, sprawling pockets of society within the worlds of his films, but The Master is decidedly more insular. Instead of say the barren landscape of an untouched America that we saw in There Will Be Blood, Anderson focuses on the landscape of these two men’s souls and how incredibly different they are in terms of personality and intentions, and yet how there are also shades of both Quell and Dodd in each other.
The most memorable instance of this more restrained style culminates in a scene in which Dodd “processes” Quell, a scene that for me is one of the best of Anderson’s career. It’s very simply shot, relying almost entirely on close-ups of the characters, as their strongwilled intensity slowly builds and builds to a kind of climax that thoroughly convinces you of why a troubled soul like Quell would gravitate towards this self-proclaimed profit. Another great scene that sticks out for me comes a bit later, when Dodd is confronted by a non-believer about the seemingly made-up nature of what Dodd is proffessing. It shows the kind of wonky but also seemingly rational thinking that is at the heart of any religion, and the film always leaves you with plenty to chew on when it delves in to the nuts and bolts of what makes people believe in a greater power.
Besides religion, really the other main driving subject of the film would have to be sex, and there’s plenty of it throughout the film. Phoenix’s character is a guy who’s sexual obsessions make him seem like nothing less than a borderline deviant, and it’s often fascinating the way the film explores the always complicated relationship between sex and religion. I do fear that because the film deals with sex in such an explicit way, it might not catch on with movie-goers or Academy voters, but then again this is such a distinctly bizarre film in really every aspect, it’s kind of hard to imagine it being as thought-provoking or engaging if it didn’t.
I guess really the only complaint I can make against the film is that it is so cerebral. As I said earlier, it leaves you with a lot of ideas and questions to ponder, but it doesn’t necessarily leave you with a lot to latch on to emotionally. And for that, I can certainly see how some might be left feeling cold in response to The Master, but for me it was a film that I couldn’t help but keep going over in my mind in the day or two after I saw it, and for me a film like that is always a rare treat.