TBTS Reviews: The Master
The response to Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest movie, The Master, is one of the more puzzling that I’ve seen in recent memory. Critics and audiences seem to love it or hate it, claiming that the movie is either the best thing they’ve seen all year, or a half-baked, poorly scripted take on Scientology. There seems to be very little middle ground.
Before the movie began, I was as excited about it as I have been for any movie that I’ve seen in recent memory. There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s previous movie, was one of those that is so powerful, its performances so overwhelming and distinct, it is easily parodied and almost instantly lodged in the collective cultural brain (think the “I Drink Your Milkshake” sketch on SNL). And while The Master, like its predecessor, has powerful performances and a score by Jonny Greenwood, it actually has more in common with another of PTA’s earlier movies.
As I exited the theater, the responses of the audience took me back 10 years. Adam Sandler was starring in Punch Drunk Love, PTA’s follow up to Magnolia, his then biggest movie to date. So many of the people in that theater 10 years ago had come expecting to see a perhaps more artistic and heartfelt version of Billy Madison. But as the credits rolled and the lights came up that night, it was clear they had seen something they hadn’t expected: “That sucked.” “What the fuck was that shit, man?” And while I didn’t share those sentiments, I found myself a little off-kilter as well. It wasn’t until I re-watched the movie that I was able to better understand just what (I thought) PTA was doing in it. The Master — about the relationship between a clearly troubled WWII veteran named Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and the charismatic and equally troubled spiritual master (and founder of a fledgling religion) named Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) — is more in this vein. It might also be one of the most compelling cinematic experiences of the past five years.
What no one will be able to dispute about The Master are the performances by its stars. Philip Seymour Hoffman is, as he is in almost everything he’s in, impeccable. And we’ve come to expect that level of performance from him. The true revelation of this film is Joaquin Phoenix. While his chops were definitely on display as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, his performance as Freddie Quell is in an entirely different category of great. Playing a character based entirely on a real personality can be written off as a well-crafted and closely studied imitation. Playing a character for whom there is no available public persona to study requires immense skill and imagination. About twenty-thirty pounds lighter than he was when he played Johnny Cash, Phoenix’s gaunt cheeks and intense, slow burning gaze imitate and dominate every scene. Even when he’s lying still on a beach or appears calm and lost in thought, you feel the tension and inner turmoil threatening to explode at any given moment.
In one of the first scenes of the movie, we hear via a radio broadcast that Japan is surrendering, and the war is over. We quickly get the sense that though peace has arrived, the real war has just begun for Freddie. In subsequent scenes, our sense of him being pent up and mentally fragile are reinforced, as he stumbles from dead-end job to dead-end job, his condition made all the worse by his proclivity to brew and imbibe his own noxious (and, we assume, highly toxic) moonshine. It is in this drunken, debilitated and self-destructive state that he stumbles upon Lancaster Dodd, the Master. The two have an immediate kinship and the remainder of the movie explores their complex and deepening relationship.
Sounds relatively straightforward, right? So why the negative reviews? The Master, even with its incredible performances (I’ve not even mentioned Amy Adams as a power-hungry and manipulative wife, or Laura Dern, as a desperately-seeking-devotee of Dodd), is a challenging movie. Where many movies tie every plot point and character up into a neat package, whether through over-the-top action and graphics, or through cheeky dialogue that gives all of its secrets away like a desperate girl/boy at his/her first college party, The Master makes you work a bit. Things are not tied together or explained. There are gaps. You are expected to fill them in. And, as I have suspected in hearing audience complaints or reading negative reviews, many folks simply don’t want to have to do that, or, having tried to do that after one viewing, have given up and decided that PTA has made a compelling, but mostly empty movie.
That assessment in particular, that The Master is incomplete, is wrong. I’m not saying that if you saw the movie and didn’t like it you’re wrong. This movie, like any piece of art, isn’t for everyone. What I am saying is that it feels very much like the movie that PTA wanted to make. That the gaps and sometimes puzzling actions are there for a very specific purpose, that they explore very particular themes. What those are, in the final analysis, is somewhat up to the viewer. But I feel very strongly that they are intentional and were done with a very specific purpose in mind.
What is the purpose, then? I can’t say for sure. But I suspect it has more to do with the spiritual struggle the characters undergo in the movie than it does with anything else. At the end of the day, this is a movie about spiritual growth and religious feeling. Not religion in the didactic or overtly bland ways of our current time, but religion in a way of genuine seeking. The images that dominate the movie — and the images in a PTA flick are every bit as important as the performances — revolve around this struggle. There is the recurring image of the wake that follows a boat, as though a comment on the relationship between our past actions and our current selves; there are the competing images of real objects/people and their simulated selves; and there is the very frequent occurrence of screens, physical barriers, like membranes between the world we inhabit and the world we seek through our spiritual struggles.
But you don’t hear much about this dimension of the movie from audiences or critics. And I think the obsession with The Master being PTA’s “Scientology movie” has a lot to do with this. By focusing on this aspect of the film, audiences and critics may be forcing themselves to discount the very real, un-ironic spiritual development and struggles of the characters. Through the excesses of current-day Scientology, through the antics of Tom Cruise, through the horror-story testimonials of escaped Scientologists, we have collectively come to dismiss the religion as a sort of shorthand for the absurd and cult-like potential of new age religion. And I think many who have seen The Master have brought that baggage to their viewing of it. Please don’t. I actually think that Scientology has little-to-nothing to really add to PTA’s movie. Yes, certain plot points and characters are clearly based loosely on the beginnings of Scientology. However, I also think it is somewhat true that other versions of The Master could have been set in or based on Jesus and the early Christian church, metaphysical spiritual gurus who came to prominence in the late sixties/early seventies, or around the life of Joseph Smith and the beginnings of the Mormon Church. They would be different movies to be sure, but the themes would very much be the same. The Scientology angle, at least to my read of The Master, is just a red herring, a false starter, a distraction.
But the movie is more complex than even that. I’m already planning my next trip the theater to see it again, eyes and mind opened wider than they were the first time around.