Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master, was above and beyond my most anticipated film of the year. After my expectations for the Dark Knight Rises died down, and before my giddy anticipation for D’Jango Unchained began, I found myself completely immersed in the cryptic trailers that had been placed online. While it goes without saying that I’m a very devoted fan of Paul Thomas Anderson’s whole body of work (Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood especially), I still got the inkling that this sixth feature of his was going to be something truly special. I saw the movie in theaters opening weekend and left the theater fully satisfied. I found it complex, meaningful, unbelievably crafted, but first and foremost I found it a very human and personal story. I think I’ll always remember the first word I uttered after seeing this film, “perfection.”
Thing was, so many others didn’t remotely share my opinion. The very day after I saw it, almost every person I asked about the film immediately gave it fairly harsh criticism. They talked about how they felt the film was aimless, and merely a series of exuberantly filmed and impeccably acted scenes that didn’t add up to anything. People also shot down my interpretations of the film, when I told them that I perceived it as an allegory about finding one’s own destiny in a confused and uncompromising world. Even after given the film’s professional reviews a closer look I found that there were plenty of negative reviews that voiced the same criticisms (although an 85% on Rotten Tomatoes isn’t shabby, that’s a long gap between the 95% that Argo currently holds). I certainly would have expected such a response from the general public, but I never thought The Master would be seen as a disappointment in the eyes of high-brow audiences.
I told myself I’d reserve final judgement until I gave the film a second viewing. I did just that a week later, but found my opinion of it was completely unchanged. I was still ready to discuss how I felt the film was so transcendent and heartfelt, yet people still told me they found it inherently flawed. People now brought up other criticisms, saying that they found the film anti-climatic and that it was missing a great sense of momentum. People pointed out that the trailers for the film contained scenes that weren’t in the finished product, and they felt that was a sign that Paul Thomas Anderson wasn’t sure what kind of film he was making and he got caught up in the plethora of ideas that he had for it.
I frankly was disappointed to hear such response. As a film fan who loves to write criticism, I often find it so engaging to debate about a film’s merits or flaws with other people. In this case, however, I found myself rather disheartened, as The Master really spoke to me. I began to wonder if I really had let my expectations get the better of me, and allowed me to pre-judge the film as a masterpiece before I even saw it. Was I being a bad film critic? Well, I’ve had over a month to think about it now, and I honestly feel that The Master might be a film that’s of utmost importance for me, both in terms of helping my personal growth, and for my position as a film critic.
For those not in the know, The Master is a film that centers around the indelible character of Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix in what is undoubtedly his most captivating performance to date. Freddie is a World War II vet, struggling to adapt to post-war society. Our protagonist only finds failure in every job he tries his hands in past his duties as a soldier, until he becomes a stowaway on a boat that shines a particularly inviting and brilliant light. Here Freddie meets the ship’s owner and titular character, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a renowned author who has started his own following known as The Cause. He believes that he has unlocked deep secrets to mankind’s understanding of time and the universe, and it’s also clear that he sees something integral to this system in Freddie. From here on out, we see how these two men (both so different, yet so alike) interact.
As well filmed and novel as The Master is, I find it’s greatest strength is in its protagonist. Reportedly a culmination of John Steinbeck and a series of stories Paul Thomas Anderson heard from war veterans, Freddie Quell is one of the most unique characters to grace the big screen in a while. In the film’s beginning, it’s easy to see the character as being pathetic, as he is a drunkard, a sex fiend, and easily prone to violence. Still, the character is also blatantly undergoing some form of post traumatic stress disorder, and his early failures in finding a career seem to suggest that it is society that’s put him in the position that he’s now in. While certainly scary looking, there is something affable about the character too. The twitches and unsettling aura that Phoenix gives in his performance tells us that this is a man who is in true anguish. As the film goes on, it’s clear that our anti-hero really does have a great big heart to him, and that’s why this is his story.
For this writing, I will choose not to touch on any allusions the film might have to Scientology (as soon as the film was announced, countless people assumed The Master would have plenty), but I feel the film is trying to use The Cause as a scapegoat for exploring particular beliefs in ideology, faith, and authority. The film’s second half basically shows Freddie trying to adapt to the customs of The Cause, but once again he has limited success. While Dodd’s teaching does help Freddie (and the audience) uncover some of his inner turmoil, there’s no doubt that he can’t find peace while staying with them, as we still see him having violent outbursts. Critics have noted that the second half of the film has a meandering nature, but I feel that an aura of sameness is necessary for us to have a better grasp on Freddie’s tumultuous frustrations.
Now, I certainly don’t want to spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen it, but I will say here and now that I found the film’s final moments to be something of true beauty. Freddie finally confronts the matter that has ailed him for so long (I do believe he has been literally and symbolically running from his past the whole movie), and then confronts Dodd for one final time where they discuss his character. The two part ways, and then the chilling aura that has carried the movie beforehand seems to dissipate. All of a sudden, the lighting and scenery becomes very bright, and for the first time we see a Freddie having any degree of self confidence. Once again, I’ve heard many complaints that viewers felt Freddie didn’t change at the film’s end, and I honestly find such comments to be naive. For me, the film’s final scene says that Freddie is still a drifter, but now he’s come to appreciate that. The Master ends optimistically, and suggests that Freddie won’t be a bastard anymore, and will instead have a more productive journey ahead of him. After Paul Thomas Anderson gave us such a bleak look at America in There Will Be Blood, I feel the Master’s ending feels in perfect opposition to it. Like Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd, both of these movies stand as intriguing parallels to one another.
This is where I find the film most dense, and sympathetic. While I have never dabbled in a cult per se, I have had friendships with people that saw the world in a much different way than I did. I myself have tried to adapt to other’s beliefs whether they be spiritual, religious or otherwise, but often find I just don’t see the world like that. I feel Paul Thomas Anderson is trying to communicate with audiences here that while belief and authority can be a very rewarding thing, it isn’t necessarily for everyone. While I’ve heard plenty of different interpretations on the film, I find many of them are conflicting. Call me simplistic, but I feel The Master’s central message could be as simple as this: Free-will is the highest merit one can obtain in today’s society.
To be honest, much of the criticism that I’ve heard towards The Master is at least somehwat accurate. Yes, the film is flimsy in terms of an arc, there are sub-plots that seem to go nowhere, and Amy Adams’ seems underused. It might have been beneficial if there were a few scenes that were a bit more drawn out, so that we could have some breathing room amidst the film’s plethora of absorbing images. Still, I also feel these flaws speak to what a singular film The Master is too. There have been plenty of film’s that were outstanding spectacles of film making, yet fell apart for me due to experimental story structures (i.e. Tree of Life, Enter the Void, Inland Empire). The Master, however, really does feel universal, and even at it’s weirdest moments it feels so close to home (no small feat considering the film has a period setting as well). The film is also very engrossing, and simply demands attention, and I feel even the film’s harshest critics can feel a really strong sense of purpose in it. Like Badlands and The Last Picture Show before it, The Master is a transcendent work of art that is firmly the product of the history of American film and culture.
Or am I wrong about all this? Did I merely interpret the movie as such just cause I wanted too? Well, even if I did (and I doubt this), that hardly matters. I admit I’ve seen myself as an outsider for most of my life, and I found this film as a firm reminder that none of us are that overtly different from each other. It just all comes down to ideology in the end.