The Master (2012)

Paul Thomas Anderson | 2hr 24min

“The Cause” is an apt name for Lancaster Dodd’s vaguely spiritual movement. His musings are rarely specific enough for us to believe in it on any level beyond its hazy, inconsistent teachings, though in a post-war American society of people looking to the stability of self-assured leaders for any sort of guidance, details are not essential. That is at least the case for Freddie Quell, whose attempts to re-join society after serving in World War II see him aimlessly wander between jobs, women, and communities, drifting on an unsettled ocean. His journey through The Master is bookmarked by overhead shots of the wake trailing behind the ships he travels on, focusing not on what lies ahead, but on the lingering remnants of the past, haunting him with memories of war, abuse, and failure. What exactly The Cause grants him and so many others is right there in its title, offering structure and purpose to the lives of those who abide by its doctrine in much the same way a human might domesticate a pet.

This visual motif repeated three times through The Master at key points, loaded with symbolism – these characters living in the wake of their trauma, drifting on a restless ocean.

This might be the simplest way to break down the unlikely relationship that thrives between Freddie and Dodd. Joaquin Phoenix plays the former as a creature of wild impulse, acting on whatever violent or sexual desires pass through his mind at any point, though this is not to say he is a shallow character. A concoction of trauma, self-loathing, and nostalgia spill out in erratic mannerisms, revealing a disconnect between the way he processes those emotions and his relation to the wider world. It isn’t just Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cool, confident aura which draws a wandering Freddie into Dodd’s orbit either. The master’s interest in the spiritual realm equally confounds and fascinates his new protégé, who can barely conceive of anything immaterial, and while he preaches against submitting to one’s bestial urges, he can’t help but cherish Freddie’s naïve devotion. Like a dog looking to be cared for and an owner searching for undying loyalty, the two nurture a companionship that arrives at exactly the right moment for them both, offering a cause to which they both dedicate their lives, and which is even more fruitful than the actual “Cause” movement they lead and serve.

It is in this complex bond that Paul Thomas Anderson draws a rich dichotomy through The Master, constantly offering formal counterpoints that are as robust as they are opaque. For every one of Freddie’s fart jokes or outbursts, Dodd reprimands him as a “silly animal.” When Dodd speaks of humanity’s supremacy over the animal kingdom, Freddie amusingly asks a total stranger if she wants to fuck. When Dodd is arrested for practicing medicine without a licence, he maintains an air of civil decorum, and of course Freddie is right there by his side, refusing to let his friend go down without a fight. In the local prison, Anderson splits the frame right down the middle of the two neighbouring cells, as if painting out the dual sides of the human brain – on one side, brutish anger, aggressively smashing a toilet, and on the other, calm, composed civility, poignantly mulling over the unfortunate situation. It is here that they have their first fight, with Dodd mercilessly taunting “Who likes you except for me?”. Really though, the question cuts both ways. While his family and followers are sceptical of his act, the current state of affairs point to the fact that Freddie is the only one willing to stick by him to the end.

A brutish loss of control compared to a calm, composed demeanour. This relationship of point and counterpoint is a huge formal strength of the film.

The obscure, almost lyrical progression of this eccentric relationship is one that Anderson builds in abstract rhythms all through The Master, eroding boundaries between scenes with dreamy long dissolves and non-linear montages that at times last upwards of ten minutes. It all begins though with the pure character work of the first twenty minutes, which sees Freddie finish up his Navy service and pass the time on a remote island. The editing here is as jagged as the primal, syncopated beat of Jonny Greenwood’s percussion and strings, accompanying Freddie humping a lady carved into the sand, masturbating into the ocean, and wrestling with his fellow soldiers. Upon arriving back in America, his psychological examination through a Rorschach test goes on to reveal more of that sexual perversion which is ingrained in his most base instincts. There always seems to be some crooked angle in Phoenix’s posture too, whether hunched over or bent to the side, and Anderson particularly emphasises it on the ship transporting him home, splaying him out on the upper deck of the navy ship in the foreground, while the crew below lounge around in more conventional positions. Besides the presence of those eccentric habits and messy vices which make him unpredictably human, Freddie is not a man who can be pinned down easily.

An overhead shot of great detail and beauty in its staging, splaying Freddie out in the foreground atop a Navy ship while others lounge around below.
Long dissolves float this narrative along, creating these hazy compositions.
Fish-eye lenses and jagged montage editing introducing us to this strange, lonely human in the opening minutes as he finishes up his Navy service.

It is on the yacht where Dodd is celebrating his daughter’s wedding and on which Freddie stows away that the two men first meet. “You seem so familiar to me,” Dodd wistfully ponders as if recalling a past life, and the chemistry between both actors is immediately palpable. How fitting it is that the initial stage of this relationship unfolds on the ocean. Just as Freddie comfortably floats through life without direction, so too is this the place where Dodd feels most focused and inspired to write. When they eventually arrive back on land, Anderson will often draw on the tight frames of doorways and windows to close in around them, binding them by the conventions of society, but for now the two simply relish the freedom that comes with the rolling waves, rendered musically in the rise and fall of Greenwood’s discordant, otherworldly scales.

Closed frames back on land, isolating both Freddie and Dodd in its confines where neither are completely comfortable.

When it comes to the “informal processing” that Dodd conducts on Freddie, there are some clear parallels being drawn to real-world Scientology beliefs, though Anderson does not brush off the pseudo-psychological practices so quickly. It is a showcase of raw talent from both Hoffman and Phoenix here, one unloading a barrage of personal questions with assertive confidence, the other breaking down beneath intense examination, confronting a sensitive pain rooted in his childhood that was only intensified by the traumas of war. While some prompts are repeated multiple times, they are not always intending to draw out different answers, but rather encourage a more profound reflection from Freddie whose responses subtly shift in tone each time. There is an entire journey mapped out on Phoenix’s face here, and which Anderson holds on in a close-up, watching the glee, anger, sorrow, shame, and desperation cut deeper into his mind than he had ever dared probe before. Compared to the earlier psychological examination conducted by doctors that merely passed over his bizarre idiosyncrasies, Dodd’s processing is a great success, as for the first time Freddie discovers an imposed structure that inspires self-reflection rather than soul-sucking conformity.

Two of the greatest performances of the decade, and the processing scene is especially a tremendous acting achievement for Phoenix. So much loaded into his facial expressions and ticks.

Though these methods belong to The Cause, it is ultimately not so much the movement that helps him than it is Dodd’s own loving friendship. Quite poetically, it is also this in turn which brings the master down to a level of casual intimacy disparaged by his uptight family. While longing to be a strong leader others can look to, his wife exerts a sterile control over him, managing his sexual gratification with cold practicality and dictating significant decisions. Like Freddie, he is still a man prone to whims of anger, and The Cause’s rigorous systems are little more than facades of perfection keeping them in check. When confronted by a stranger in public over the organisation’s logical fallacies, Dodd is forced into a tight corner of weak arguments, until a rare slip sees him lose total control. As his most blinded, loyal disciple, Freddie follows his lead, throwing a tomato at the man and later attacking him violently, like a dog protecting its owner. Later after a period of separation between the two, their reunion goes beyond friendly. While they intimately hug each other and roll around on the grass like children, it is evident that Dodd has not so much cultivated Freddie’s courtesy as he has submitted to his animalism.

While Dodd tries to cultivate Freddie, Freddie often pulls him down with his chaotic, loving intimacy.

The game of “Pick a Point” that Dodd invites Freddie to play out on a barren expanse of salt plains affectingly paints out the juncture at which the two friends ultimately diverge, chasing down an irreconcilable pair of goals. The activity itself has no stakes or competition involved, but by Dodd’s own rules, this brief adrenaline rush of driving to a point on the horizon should take one back to where they started. When it is Freddie’s turn, it is apparent that Dodd’s brainwashing has done little to suppress his impulsivity, as in this short moment that he is let off his leash, he chooses not to return. There is a difference in his movement now though – no longer is he languidly drifting between cities, but he now proceeds with velocity and direction towards a singular point in the distance, with no intention of returning. His unfinished business from life before the war beckons, and with a new understanding of human relationships instilled in him, he is ready to face it.

The salt plains make for a beautiful, barren set piece, leading to Freddie’s impulsive but decisive escape.

Despite this advancement in character development, Anderson keeps evading any conventional narrative catharsis, seemingly reverting both Freddie and Dodd back to their lives before they met. We might hope that some firm resolution will be attained at their final meeting many years later, but this new Freddie is no longer seeking the same guidance that he was before. Between the two men, Anderson illustrates the human impulse to follow and the desire to lead, both being essential parts of our psychology, but he also portrays them as fully developed characters on inverse journeys of self-control and surrender. In a future life they may even be sworn enemies, Dodd ponders, but in the meantime, he simply holds the utmost admiration for his friend’s new perspective.

“For if you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.”

Even in that statement, there is still a recognition that while Freddie goes where he pleases, he has not entirely escaped the influence of society’s values, boundaries, or structures. Anyone who has may no longer even be human. But between the two men it is ironically the follower, not the leader, who has come closer to understanding life without a master. Or rather, Freddie is his own master, finally in tune with his instincts and letting them point the way. Anderson’s layering of every single interaction in The Master with character counterpoints and patterns goes beyond great screenwriting, but also affirms it as a formal masterwork, elusively drifting these soulmates through a post-war America lost in its identity and direction.

A strong sense of setting in Anderson’s modernist production design, rooting this unique relationship in a post-war Western world.

The Master is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

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