Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern
Review: Paul Thomas Anderson movies aren’t clearly readable, understandable, or at times even coherent. They don’t let you walk away with an immediate understanding, but instead implant themselves within you, needling at the back of your mind to the point where you just have to watch it again so you can experience it for a second time.
Like a drug they stick with you unlike most any other movie. Days, weeks, even years after seeing ‘The Master’ certain scenes and images will resonate just like they did from ‘Boogie Nights’ or ‘There Will Be Blood.’ And this is not in a disgusting way, but a powerful way, a way that can only be burned into memory through performances of such a complex set of human emotions it’s hard to believe the characters on screen are just actors and not truly living this material.
Will it be Amy Adams scene where she pleasures her husband Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a little-more-than-slightly uncomfortable scene where she uses sex as a weapon for manipulation? Will it be the scene were Phoenix’s Freddie, in a half-asleep, half-drunken haze, sees all the women in the room completely naked as they dance around while the men remained fully clothed? Will it be Phoenix’s desperate attempt to sexually pleasure a woman made of sand on a beach? A scene that is funny until we realize that in his desperation Freddie might actually think the woman real, and looks quite disappointed when he comes back to reality.
You never quite know which ones will be there a few weeks later, but they will. This is part of the magic of Anderson’s filmmaking. Everything is so meticulously prepared and completed that you have no choice to burn certain parts of it into your recollection. Whether you like the movie or not (and many will be split), you will probably be looking up reviews and thoughts on the movie to see if you can gain more insight into what Anderson was trying to say with his film.
Some will tell you the vague-ness of his films is Anderson’s greatest strength; some will say it’s his biggest weakness. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with leaving things up for interpretation, but his only failings, and they are slight, come when he leaves too much out there. This was the ultimate pain point for ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ but what was played to great effect in ‘Boogie Nights’ and ‘Magnolia.’
Just as with the latter two movies and his excellent ‘There Will Be Blood’ Anderson proves he is a master of creating tension in a film that doesn’t have to revolve around car chases or scenes of life or death. Now, one could argue that all his scenes carry the weight of life or death, metaphorically speaking, and thus makes his films great, but I don’t know that I will make that argument here. His films carry weight because of the emotional resonance within all his characters and I will leave it at that for now.
If you’ve been following the production or buzz surrounding ‘The Master’ then you probably know it’s loosely based on the start of Scientology and the exploits of L. Ron Hubbard. While this is not a direct retelling of that story, and I use loosely with the utmost of intention, it’s certainly an aspect and it’s obvious. This is not a bad thing at all as the starting of a fringe religion is ripe with thematic elements. Being able to tell the difference between a religion and a cult, the idea of thoughts or ideas as elements of manipulation, and whether or not these things can truly help people or its all an illusion are explored with great depth.
We see parallels in the teachings of Dodd (Hoffman, “the Master”) and the very things he is teaching against. In one scene Dodd berates Freddie calling him “an animal” as he paces back and forth like a caged tiger. Then, no more than a few scenes later he has him repeatedly perform an “exercise” in which he paces back and forth with seemingly no purpose. The first instance is in defiance of Dodd and therefore not to his advantage. The second is used by him to not only help manipulate Freddie, but others as well.
Dodd is very careful about what he says but gets so caught up in the greatness of himself that he inexplicably changes the structure of the very belief system he has created on a whim. He projects himself as a man trying to help people get in touch with who they really are. In reality, he is a man who has to validate his own existence by the constant gratification of those around him.
Freddie is taken on as a project and serves multiple purposes for Dodd. He is provided the adulation he craves from Freddie, but also allows him to believe he is helping. Through what he has done with Freddie he can look at himself in the mirror and believe he is truly helping someone, and therefore everyone. Freddie, as a person, is a crass an unlikable drunk who can somehow drink torpedo fuel and come back for more, so long as it’s mixed with turpentine.
Even so, Dodd believes that it is the responsibility of ‘the cause’ to help this man. But Freddie is the only man that seems to truly need help. Everyone else looks, by comparison, completely fine but is duped into believing that they have problems they don’t even know about. This is the great illusion that Dodd perpetuates and then capitalizes on.
Here is where things get a little shaky. The point to be made here is not clear. Is it an indictment on scientology? Is it an indictment on organized religion as a whole? Is it trying to say anything at all or just trying to make us empathize through a human experience that is unique and yet familiar? Perhaps the lesson is that some people just can’t be helped. It could be a treatise on how post-traumatic stress syndrome affects returning soldiers and how hard it is for them to reacquaint themselves with normal society. Or maybe it’s just about a messed up individual who refuses to help himself and therefore can’t be helped, no matter how hard others try and what methods they employ.
Despite the questions in the air we are still treated to a great movie-going experience. The performances are tightly wound and incredible. If Phoenix and Hoffman (and to a lesser extent Adams) are not nominated for a slew of awards “travesty” won’t begin to cover it. Anderson should be nominated for as many as he can stomach himself (both writing and directing) as should his cinematographer.
The music is great as well. Anderson’s ability to imbue tension into every scene stems from his extraordinary and constant use of the score to influence every emotion seen on screen.
All in all, this movie is worth your time.