You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk
You may be the head of some big TV network
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
You may be living in another country under another name
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
There is a moment in the documentary Grizzly Man when two bears are fighting and one of them unexpectedly shits himself. To we humans that would be the utmost embarrassment. We try so hard to control ourselves, especially when we have an audience. It’s true that in moments of pure terror we let loose uncontrollably because pure instinct takes over and rational thought vanishes. The struggle between these two impulses is what, I think, drives Paul Thomas Anderson’s most accomplished, exquisite film to date, The Master.
There aren’t many people in this world, let alone filmmakers anymore, who have something to say that elevates not just the ongoing cinematic conversation, but the human experience. No, this movie doesn’t say: God does not exist, find your own religion. Maybe it implies that. But in taking on the subject of anyone having a master at all it sends you out of the theater and into some deep thinking about what or whom your master is. Is it money? Is it sex? Is it love? Is it conventional religion or do you keep searching, in hopes that you will be gripped by a master and shown the way? Most fascinating of all, and the subject of Anderson’s film, are the people who fancy themselves god-like leaders capable of starting a whole new religion — of perpetuating the myth that the answer to the human experience is really that attainable.
Since so many people have said they don’t know what The Master is about I will not presume to tell you. Not definitively. I can only tell you what I think it’s about (and will stay away from spoilers). I will not try to be the voice of authority here; maybe it’s true that’s each interpretation has value on its own. To me, though, it examines the grinding sensation of what it means to be part animal and part human – with ruminations on life, evolution, science, religion. This isn’t a film that has the answers; It’s a film about people who think they do.
Thematically and visually, The Master gets close to what Orson Welles did with Citizen Kane; the summation of an auteur completely in command of the story while reaching unimaginable heights with his artist’s eye. All of Anderson’s films accomplish this to a degree. But The Master ups his own game so profoundly I can’t imagine him ever topping it. Perhaps this will be a career high point never to be equaled, as with Orson Welles who came close but never topped Citizen Kane.
The sublime peak modern auteurs reach for but cannot achieve, and why Welles’ film continues to wipe up the floor with them, has really to do with the audacity to take on weighty, non-personal subject matter. There are so many personal stories to tell and they are worthy stories. But to tackle the broader human experience is not for the timid. Anderson is cock-sure as a filmmaker, like Welles – he still shoots on film and this one is 70mm, to serve as not just a great cinematic experience but one that underlines, bolds and highlights why film should never be supplanted. He is strong on ego, thrusts his notions about life onto the world without hesitation. This, I think, is one of the reasons why The Master is so masterful; there is no hesitation in storytelling here. This is balls-out.
Thick with unforgettable imagery, The Master tells the story of Freddie (a career best performance by Joaquin Phoenix) – an untamed man who hasn’t yet learned how to stifle the animal within. That is to say – when he sees a naked woman made of sand on the beach his first impulse is to fuck it. The moment is so vivid for him because it uncorks that which we were put on earth to do – even looking back at that scene I question myself, “did I really see that?” This is a film that demands repeat viewings for that very reason; you can’t possibly take it all in at once.
Freddie’s impulses are at the surface, so if you scratch his skin even a little bit, he gushes. He appears uneasily onto the film like unexpected menstrual blood in white cotton underwear, like a shitsmear on a clean piece of paper — what to do with Freddie? He pounds on people when he feels anger, he drinks weird concoctions and everything he sees is or has to do with a woman’s pussy. When he looks at women he sees them naked. It is a constant, unwinnable obsession, this. Somewhere inside, though, Freddie imagines he is not this concoction of instinct, this tool to forward the human race, but someone capable of loving a real woman. He holds onto that notion, though it’s something very much removed from the reality of his life.
Freddie stumbles upon Lancaster Dodd (brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman) – someone who is clearly a religious huckster, a Bible salesman, a slick willy with some cockamamie new technique to explain the human experience to Freddie and other disciples. Of course, Freddie is just the kind of person that the sect pulls in – a lost man.
The scenes between Freddie and Dodd are so good I won’t spoil them for you except to say that Freddie is the circus act and Dodd is the would-be animal trainer. Funny thing about religion is that there are always excuses as to why it doesn’t work. When it comes down to blind faith, well, what good does that do someone incapable of it? L. Ron Hubbard is the model for Dodd but not the only one. If it’s a comment on Scientology, it serves as a reminder that guys like Dodd pop up all over the place. The Master IS about Scientology, absolutely. It nails the pseudo-religion for all that it never will be and all that it has been. But in so doing it really nails all religion, though, doesn’t it? What’s the difference between a fake God-like Dodd and a fake God-like Jesus? You have to ask yourself that question. In the end it is simply used as a power play, power over people, money, stature, wealth, all in the name of a higher power that tells you you are not an animal. You have risen above it. Hubbard managed to build an empire. The thuggism of Scientology and the violence that hovers over all religions, going all the way, is the perplexing part, just as it is within us – we can be tamed but only up to a point. All the while, there is unseemly in Scientology, Catholicism, Freud, and The Master about poring over the inner psychosis of us. It is unseemly because what are we doing exactly? Are they healers or voyeurs?
As Freddie’s awareness grows, he must weigh the two paths in life. Does he celebrate the song of himself? Let loose the drumbeat of his primate rage? Or does he learn control it, by adopting Dodd’s guidance and control. Does that then translate to passing out flyers on the street corners, to suppressing every sexual inclination he has in the name of what – salvation?
Phoenix is in Brando territory with his crumpled, puckered, explosive performance as Freddie. what is most surprising about his portrayal is how sympathetic he often seems. You don’t really expect you will feel for Freddie but you do. You search his face for clues, not knowing what he will do next. This is also true of Hoffman, as these are wholly original characters, not a cliche anywhere. Amy Adams just gets better as she feels around for what she might be good at. Whatever role she takes on she commits to it fully and there is a scene in this film between her and Hoffman that is as horrifying as it is memorable – like so many scenes in The Master it very nearly pierces the barrier between film screen and audience – after that scene, you too almost want to wash your hands. The scenes are like truth-seeking missiles with no landing point. But you feel them when they hit.
Oh, this film. Like life itself, its beauty passes much too quickly. You want to stop time and you want to stop each frame of this film and pore over every shot. Anderson has mastered shot composition thoroughly that there isn’t a single wasted visual. It isn’t just about how beautiful it is to look at, it is that – it is so that. But it’s also how he uses the movement of the actors, the color palette, and the continual juxtaposition of the expected and the unexpected – and the music. Good god, the music. Once you pass a sequence you are hit with another that is just as good if not better than the last. One of the most memorable for me, among many, is the jail scene with Freddie on one side and Lancaster Dodd on the other. Freddie explodes but Dodd simply stands there, silently judging Freddie’s weakness. It sums up the differences between the two characters so well. But the whole film is filled with moments equally powerful.
By the end my heart broke for Freddie. Not because he was flailing and destined to die in a bar fight, contract some life-threatening STD or fall into depression, but because the beauty of that character is his profound need for something so ordinary. The touch of a woman. The love, maybe, of a woman. The taste, the feel, the satisfaction of a lover happy to be there, smiling down at him, damp and sweaty for the partaking.
The key to Dodd’s religion, and maybe all religions, is in the remaking of our natural selves to serve a higher cause. It gives us a reason to believe, explains our impulses and there is never a wrong answer as long as you are serving your master. But real life is uglier than that. Real life throws up in our faces every day the good, the bad and the ugly mankind has brought to the table. It isn’t to say Freddie stands for the Ayn Rand kind of self-centered hedonistic lifestyle either because in Freddie’s world, money isn’t his master. He doesn’t want power in that way. But maybe what he really wants he can’t ever have. Living without religion means confronting that eternal angst. There is nothing uplifting about the notion that when we die, we die. I found truth in Freddie’s devotion to the right now, for however long it lasts, and wherever it takes him.