March 28, 2013
by Derek Defoe
After World War One they called it Shell Shock.
In the opening scenes of The Master, soldiers are readying to come home and re-enter society as the second World War comes to a close. They're given quick little pep talks, quick little psychological tests, deemed well, and thanked for their services. They're told they can live normal lives now, as difficult as is may be after experiencing the traumas of war. Among these soldiers being showered with encouragement is Freddie, a Naval officer, who is curiously older than the rest of the group, and seems un-phased by any of the tests and speeches. He's a shaking clenched fist of a man, walking around like a Simian version of Popeye the Sailor, prone to outbursts and erratic behavior, sex-obsessed, and unpredictable. The character doesn't have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he IS Post Tramatic Stress Disorder.
I think it can be seen as a companion film to Paul Thomas Anderson's previous film, There Will Be Blood, and considering these two works, I have to wonder if Anderson has an optimistic view of the human condition, or if we're all lesser beings than we make ourselves out to be. It's interesting how by the end of There Will Be Blood, his character Daniel Plainview degenerates and ends up as this subhuman shell of his former self, drunk, ape-like, and cannot even stand erect. Where he "finished," the character Freddie seems to pick right up after he left off. Imagine a whole movie with the Plainview character as he is in the last act: that's The Master. If any kind of optimism can be found, it's through the "Master" subjected in the film, Lancaster Dodd, who proposes with great conviction that we as human beings are than just monkeys, and certainly not just members of the animal kingdom, and are on much higher planes of existence and capable of so much more than our primal instincts and urges. But by that same notion, the optimism in There Will Be Blood should be found in Eli, the preacher, and we know that isn't so.
There Will Be Blood peered into religion in the early 1900s and what The Master turns its focus to is the halfway point of the century into a new wave of thinking, almost a completely different collective mindset of the world where man could believe in and rely on his own understanding of himself so strongly that a form of psychology could be seen as a way of life, in lieu of religion. And to go further than that, Dodd, and the followers of "The Cause," hold belief that the human body is just a vessel, and that past lives exist and future ones await. Much like with religion, it's a much more easing ideology than believing we're just monkeys and then we die. What I don't think Dodd and his Cause anticipated, was Freddie.
If Freddie can be seen as a neanderthal of some kind, then I suppose his 2001: A Space Odyssey moment, his turning-a-bone-into-a-tool breakthrough, is when he's able to concoct a stiff mind-bending drink out of household everyday chemicals that, basically, can really fuck your shit up. After all, the most modern tools are tools of the mind, and when Freddie, in a drunken haze, happens upon Dodd's boat and is discovered, Dodd is fascinated by this, and feels a connection to him almost instantly. I guess because both can so easily warp minds.
The introductory scenes between Freddie and Lancaster are perhaps the strongest of the entire film. Lancaster subjects Freddie to his testing, and brings him into his world, and the acting we see from Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix is intense and engaging. A filmmaker like Anderson and a film like this seems to have the sensibilities of films from the late 60s and early 70s, the actors are allowed to throw caution to wind, to be risky, experimental, and the result is scene after scene of incredible back-and-forths between two skilled and brave actors. Phoenix's performance in particular is among the best I've ever witnessed.
Years go by in the story. Freddie cements himself further into The Cause. But a strange thing happens. Lacking a better word, Freddie just doesn't get "better," when by all accounts of the practices and tests, he should be. Lancaster's wife, Peggy, in an equally strong performance by Amy Adams, sits idly by at the beginning, seeing how many new ideas he's arranging, she believes Freddie inspires him. Time goes by and it becomes evident, to her at least, that he's a threat to their way and their cause. Dodd is determined to get results. His practices, of course, are absurd. A lot of them feel like they're really bad acting classes, like in the scenes where he gets Freddie to compare glass and wood repeatedly. By skeptics Dodd is dismissed as a fraud, and that he's making everything up as he goes along, which is fair enough, but unlike with There Will Be Blood, there's no grand cathartic moment where the charismatic leader admits he is a fraud and hangs his head in shame. I think it's because Dodd, at least for the most part, believes in his own preachings. There's only one slight hint at his disingenuousness, near the end, when one of his own followers comes up to him and points out inconsistencies between the ideology of his previous book compared to his new one. Instead of giving a quick explanation with smile and a reassuring word, it seems he finally just ran out of bullshit. Panting and red-faced, he snaps at her and she scurries away. I think Freddie had finally broke him. I think, like Plainview, some men cannot be saved.
Like any ambitious novel or piece of music or painting, film is an art that can be interpreted and analyzed. The Master is like a Rorschach test in and of itself, and different people will see different things. In reading up on the film, I've heard an interesting phrase used, particularly in negative reviews, that it "flirts with greatness," which, if you think about it, is a lot like saying someone's half-pregnant, as if we as viewers can be so objective as to wash our hands of our own opinions. I saw greatness here, it is a film that will not leave me. I found it probing and enigmatic, though I'm still left unsure about the optimism or pessimism that drives it. If Freddie can be seen as this type of monkey, then indeed, he himself, in his years with The Cause, flirts with greatness, with potential to be something more, but at the end of it all arrives at still being a monkey with a few parlor tricks to get laid. But if we can entertain for a moment that Lancaster Dodd speaks the truth, and how he reveals in their final scene together that in a past life they were good friends, and in the next they will meet again but as rivals, then they are but two ships passing in the night in this life, likely to have another chance in the next. I see a certain kind of optimism in that. I thought, for a moment, that maybe his sentiment was accurate but his facts were wrong, and that in the previous life they were actually Eli and Plainview of There Will Be Blood. The ages of the characters and the dates don't quite add up though, but they're aggravatingly close- almost intentionally and teasingly so.
Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Mihai Maimare, Jr.