The Master, self-assured writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, is a mystery, not in genre, but in the truest sense of the word. Watching the movie is an experience like watching a sunset. There is a great deal of beauty there, and it is profoundly affecting in moments, but in the end there is only darkness, silence, and stillness. I left the theater bewildered and in awe.
The Master follows a traumatized WWII veteran, Freddie Quell, for the few years immediately after his service with and support from the military as he gets taken up by the leader and members of a psychosomatic cult-like group reminiscent of Scientology called “The Cause.” The relationship between Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) and The Cause’s founder and leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is at the center of the film.
I don’t often focus on directors in my reviews, because I believe very strongly that movies are perhaps the most collaborative of all modern art forms. I try to not be an “auteur” critic. To equate a cinematic experience with a single, easy to identify personality seems unfair to all the other people who work to make a movie happen. There are directors though, like Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, or Alfred Hitchcock, whose control of what the audience sees and hears is so apparent, directors whose “voices” are so clear, that it’s difficult to talk about their films with out talking about them.
P.T. Anderson is one such director. His films – Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and now, The Master – are so distinct and forceful in their cinematic styling, it seems appropriate to write about “what P.T. Anderson has done” in writing about his films.
In The Master, writer/director Anderson has created vibrant characters with clear personalities. As in his other films, he’s given us archetypes at odds with each other. We have Freddie, a man who just wants to be loved, in conflict with Lancaster, a man who just wants to be in control, and Lancaster’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who just wants everything to be perfect. Whatever gets in the way of any of them achieving their desires cannot be tolerated. They each get in each others’ way – Freddie’s unruliness and Lancaster’s philandering upset Peggy’s perfection, Freddie’s unpredictability and Peggy’s judgmentalism defy Lancaster’s control, and Peggy’s condescension and Lancaster’s selfishness make Freddie feel undesired.
Bewilderingly, though these character motivations can be so easily identified, the characters themselves remain a mystery throughout the film. This is to P.T. Anderson’s credit. He has crafted striking characters who remain mysterious to the end. In The Master’s most intimate moments, I was struck with how little I really knew about these people, why they are like they are, and how, if ever, they could be made right.
In fact, there are moments in The Master, when I wonder if these characters aren’t really just different aspects of the same character, as if these different motivations – for love, control, and perfection – aren’t just warring in the mind of a character either in the narrative itself or unseen in the film entirely.
The best works of art, in my opinion, are the ones that are the most broadly affecting, the ones that resonate with the greatest numbers of people. I’m not talking about popularity or like-ability here. I’m talking about effective affectivity, even if that affect is difficult to describe or explain. P.T. Anderson makes highly affective films even if they are also frustratingly opaque. I also accept the paradox that the most broadly affective art is the most stridently personal, because I think the audience’s key way of responding to art is emotionally, and portrayed emotions ring truer as they come from a more personal place. As artists approach that more personal place, they also approach that mystery, that eternity in the heart of every human, that is so difficult to understand.
What P.T. Anderson has done in creating The Master, is to create an unresolved mystery, a movie that keeps its secrets. Much like getting to know another person, the more you know about The Master, the more you know there is more you don’t know. It is a film full of truth but no answers. Did I like it? I don’t know. I hope I loved it. I certainly saw it, and in the end, as with another person, I don’t think it matters as much whether or not I like it as it does whether or not I’m paying attention, because seeing is the first step toward love.
(SPOILERS – Sure, there is a question being asked in this film as to whether or not humans are something more than animals, but that question is simply the bartering chip between these deeper needs. As the film ends, that question is unresolved, and all three competing needs are ultimately unfulfilled. However, the only need that remains un-contradicted is Freddie’s need to be loved.
Also, admittedly, Anderson likes to reference other films – in The Master, specifically, Citizen Kane, A Clockwork Orange, and Eyes Wide Shut – but his references are shallow and obvious. He doesn’t deepen the meaning of the images he lifts. He simply borrows what meaning is already there. The strength of Anderson’s filmmaking, and it is near Herculean strength, is in his characters. His cinematic style is mere pastiche. His characters are indelible.)