Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: The Master (2012)

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Master (2012)

by Tony Dayoub


"Life is but a dream."

Waves ebb and flow, created by the wake a boat leaves behind. Jonny Greenwood's dissonant musical chords thunder loudly. The recurring image, and its changing relationship to the soundtrack, mark three distinct chapters in Paul Thomas Anderson's beautifully elliptical The Master. The first chapter introduces Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a sneering, gnarly, hunchback of a man, a variation of There Will Be Blood's upright Daniel Plainview. During World War II, Quell spends his time on a naval gunboat making moonshine. The women he dreams of during his shore leaves are not human beings but objects for him to jerk off or hump to, as he does with a sand mermaid his shipmates build on some Pacific beach.


At its most primal level, The Master is a revision of Anderson's last film. Like Plainview, Quell is alienated, angry at the world, base, lamely inching forward on instinct alone. Where Plainview's turn-of-the-century era celebrated such intrepid independence and defiance, the postwar period Quell lives in encourages conformity. And just like this "alone-ness" leads Plainview to become mired in a battle of wills with a preacher bent on restraining his individuality, Quell, himself an interloper on humanity, falls in the thrall of a charismatic charlatan pushing a philosophy known as the Cause, one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a stand in for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.


The second occurrence of the wave imagery, coupled with more harmonious music from Greenwood this time, signals the start of a chapter in which Quell and Dodd begin a little dance, each courting the other. The Master reinterprets Plainview's war with Eli Sunday chiefly by inverting the seniority of its two leads. Where Plainview could only look down on the sniveling snot-nosed Sunday, the fatherless Quell longs to be accepted by the paternal Dodd. Dodd seeks to yoke Quell the way one would a bull, and, in harnessing the rangy troublemaker, utilize him to plow the ground in anticipation of Dodd's spiritual path. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship in which Dodd finds inspiration in the tormented Quell, while Quell draws peace from the structured programming inflicted by Dodd and his Cause.


The Master must seem perplexing to audiences used to the classic Hollywood story structure. It has led many to promote the idea that The Master is a free-associative, directionless evocation of a story rather than the rigorously structured tale it really is. True, Anderson does elide past a lot of what one might think is necessary information. But watch the film from the wild Quell's point of view (which Anderson stresses is the dominant viewpoint in one scene, shot from Quell's perspective, where every woman in the room is naked), and The Master can be read as a memory piece. It's a fever dream in which only the "good parts" stand out for an animalistic man who refuses to be tamed by his elder, despite his intellectual yearning to conform. And The Master, honestly, really just is all "good parts."


At the heart of The Master is the same argument made in There Will Be Blood. Anderson advocates for the individual railing against the collective. Quell's arc may be a more circuitous one than Plainview's; youth and a diffuse sense of self, exacerbated by the events of the war, may complicate the path Quell must travel in a way age and confidence absolves Plainview from the same kind of challenges. But the final recurrence of the waves, this time accompanied only by the water's serene, diegetic sounds, indicate Quell ultimately takes a step towards enlightenment without depending on the oppressive Dodd for help. And if Quell doesn't entirely find peace, it's still an affirmation that he's progressing towards a form of contentment instead of stagnating under the influence of one man's cult.

7 comments:

Aden Jordan said...

You've done a nice job comparing and contrasting "The Master" with "There Will Be Blood", especially in terms of comparing the dynamic between Quell and Dodd with Plainview and Sunday.

The two films very much feel as if they've built off one another, both in terms of the character similarities that you mentioned and also in the way that they take place in much earlier time periods than Anderson's previous films.

You noted that some viewers and critics find the film hard to decipher and I can't help but notice that this seems to be a common trend with strong, distinct films over the past year: the same thing has been said about both "Tinker Tailor" and "Prometheus" and now "The Master".

The Film Connoisseur said...

Awesome review, sounds like I'm gonna love this movie, I love films that explore the nature of religion, this is a theme that Anderson seems hellbent on exploring. Gotta love him for having the guts to do so and with such beautifully made films I might add.

Tony Dayoub said...

"...I can't help but notice that this seems to be a common trend with strong, distinct films over the past year..."

Aden, as Glenn Kenny recently noted elsewhere, I believe it has something to do with the fact that people have difficulty "watching" movies as opposed to listening to them. Take TINKER for example. Obviously Alfredson elided through much of Le Carre's plot heavy novel in order to compress it for the screen. But if viewers just focused on the visuals they would have found that many of those plot points had simply been worked into the images instead of the dialogue. It makes for a much better picture, in my opinion.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Tony:

I'm not much of a plot person in terms of needing exposition to explain things. Yet, I still found The Master pretty aimless. The primary problem I'm having with The Master is that even though it's not boring by any means (the music, the cinematography, the production design, the lease performance from Phoenix...they're all great), I just didn't find it all that engaging.

I had the same reaction to There Will Be Blood when it first came out, so we'll see if this one grows on me with subsequent viewings as most PTA films tend to do. However, I wasn't struck by this film and completely wowed by it in the same way I was with Magnolia or Punch Drunk Love; the energy is just...different.

I was fascinated by Phoenix's performance. The initial interview he has with Hoffman is a thing of beauty, but the film doesn't seem to involve the viewer beyond that. I never felt like I had a grasp on his character.

Perhaps that evasiveness was intentional, and perhaps on subsequent viewings I'll pick up on more, but I agree with Ebert who used the great image of reaching for the film with his hand and finding that is "closes on air."

My final thought here: I liked that you mentioned the connecting theme in the last two PTA movies of the individual "railing against the collective." Often throughout The Master, I thought of Kierkegaard's idea of the crowd being "the untruth." It's an interesting theme to explicate, and I'm curious if it draws me in a little deeper the next time I see the movie (it did with There Will Be Blood, so I have hopes for The Master).

Anyway, sorry for the rambling. Great piece, Tony.

Tony Dayoub said...

"However, I wasn't struck by this film and completely wowed by it in the same way I was with MAGNOLIA or PUNCH DRUNK LOVE; the energy is just...different."

On the surface, THE MASTER feels more sprawling and epic than the other two films because of the larger span of time and locations. This deceptively makes it appear to be less focused than those two films. But I actually see it and THERE WILL BE BLOOD--both centered on an antihero and his opposite number... and, in fact, each is really just centered on the antihero himself--as more narrowly focused because it hones in on its lead character so tightly.

Jason Bellamy said...

"But the final recurrence of the waves, this time accompanied only by the water's serene, diegetic sounds, indicate Quell ultimately takes a step towards enlightenment without depending on the oppressive Dodd for help. And if Quell doesn't entirely find peace, it's still an affirmation that he's progressing towards a form of contentment instead of stagnating under the influence of one man's cult."

Or just stagnating on his own, which is what he seemed to be doing before "The Cause" came along.

Indeed, Freddie may not be enlightened at the end, and may in fact be incapable of enlightenment, but in the least he's "lightened," not carrying the same load of inner torment that we see for the bulk of the film. And he does seem to have gained a bit more sense of self; he knows that he doesn't want to devote his life to "The Cause."

The scene I'm most eager to see again is the final goodbye. There seems to be a lot of communication going on between the two men without actually talking about the issues in question. I'm sure there are insinuations and expressions that are even more meaningful than I first detected.

Tony Dayoub said...

Jason,

THE MASTER is definitely worth another look. Like THERE WILL BE BLOOD, one of the film's most disaquieting effects is the sense that something big is about to happen in the next moment, like a "delayed gratification." The fact that nothing of that scale ever does occur adds to the unsatisfying feeling one has when the movie is over.

Watching it a second time, with this disturbing feeling having evaporated, frees the viewer and the movie to see some of the expressions you refer to in the exchanges between Hoffman and Phoenix.