I was having trouble formulating an opinion on The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest epic, which I saw this past weekend with my brother, my sister, Caleb, and about 4 pounds of gummy candy. Then I read Anthony Lane’s review of it in this past week’s New Yorker, and in disagreeing with him, found something to say.
Because he seems to think that The Master is a character study of what it means to be master, and what it means to be servant. But I saw it as a map of human weakness.
As I’m sure you cinephiles have already heard, The Master is a finely wrought film, employing all sorts of cinematic techniques that I cannot name—sort of in the same way that before I became a writer, I never paid any attention to writing, I just read stories—that is tightly wound, cleanly executed, and perhaps, depending on who you’re talking to, brilliant.
It’s the story of Freddie Quell, played by an aging Joaquin Phoenix, a mentally ill man whose sickness manifests in alcoholism and sex addiction. We meet him on the shores of the Pacific, contemplating cutting off his own hand, and building a sand sculpture of a woman he pretends to fuck, much to the delight of his fellow sailors.
Watching those early scenes, it’s difficult not to recall The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s film about the Pacific front, which carried far more weight, and was much more intense a human study. In Malick’s silences and sweeping vistas, I felt fear, and a deep empathy.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s film feels playful in comparison, almost theatrical, like it’s setting the stage for a musical. Sailors run around in their bloomers, laughing at Freddie Quell, the resident lunatic, and waiting to be called home. Seriousness is lost in making the film a perfect period piece.
Upon his arrival home, Freddie is institutionalized. It’s hinted that he lost his mind over a letter, written by a former sweetheart, who kissed another boy in his town. In his conversations with therapists, it is revealed that his father was a drunk, and his mother was in an institution.
Blah blah blah. Freddie Quell then goes out searching for honest employment. But he’s restless, and angry. He works at a department store photo studio, but loses his job when, in a truly funny scene, he antagonizes a male subject by putting the studio lighting so close to his face that he starts to sweat profusely.
He does some migrant work in a cabbage farm, only to be expelled when another farmer, drunk on the concoction Freddie made from, among other things, lighter fluid, almost dies. There are a lot of terribly beauty shots of him fleeing across the barren field.
Homeless, freezing, and drunk, he comes upon a yacht, moored to a dock, in the middle of the night. On the decks, a party, illuminated by paper lanterns, lights up the void. Freddie climbs aboard, and in a shot that is half perfect gorgeousness, half-Titantic-overwrought, the yacht takes off towards open waters, it’s departure perfectly framed by a simulacrum of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The next morning, woken up, he is brought to the man-about-the-ship, the master, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Those who read about the film know that there are echoes of Scientology throughout. The Master believes that human beings have been around for trillions of years, despite evidence that the earth is only a few billion years old, and that their bodies are just vessels that their spirits hop each lifetime. The Master gives Freddie formal “processing,” which forces him to confront past demons, such as the fact that he slept with aunt three times.
The Master is married to Peggy (played by Amy Adams), who is pregnant. The Master, despite the fact that he is portly and bombastic, is a lothario, holding bizarre parties in which all of the women get naked, even the old ladies.
There are a lot of underpinings of cults. The Master is a megalomaniac. He makes shit up as he goes along, sometimes to hilarious results—forcing Freddie to choose a point on the wall, and go back and forth to the window and the point, describing what he feels differently each time, until he starts to babble nonsense—and he demands absolute loyalty.
But he also gives Freddie a family. Food, comfort, protection. A comfortable existence.
At first, it seems strange that the Master would choose Freddie to be his pet. He has a son, played by Landrey from “Friday Night Lights,” and a beautiful daughter, who is also something of a nymphomaniac herself, who follow him around devotedly—or at least follow him around. He has bevvies of beauties, and wealthy women, who provide for his every material desire. He has followers in plenty, and a weak willed son-in-law who looks kind of like Obama.
Freddie, for all of his sick, Joaquin handsomeness, is kind of an idiot. He’s volatile, and slow-minded. He continues to drink, even when he’s asked on numerous occasions, by Peggy, to stop. He’s not smart enough to challenge the Master. He’s not even smart enough to intelligently converse with him. Why would a man such as the Master, so brilliant at manipulation, so in control of his tiny world, want to have such a loose canon hanging around, with nothing much to offer besides a blindness to reason?
Because megalomaniacs, necessarily, are insecure beings, their confidence depending on other, weaker people, believing in their visions of themselves. And that confidence needs to be absolute. If their followers depart, no matter how unequal they may appear to be, their power is eroded. Because it is so fragile, it threatens to crash.
Or at least that’s how I read it. The Master cannot lose Freddie, because ultimately, he needs him to believe in himself. Freddie, however, an intractable alcoholic, does not need the Master. With or without him, he cannot cure his own demons. He cannot stop drinking. He cannot stop obsessing about the girl he loved before the war. He cannot find a place to rest, because his mind is his great enemy, his cult following, his life.
I wish that the film had ended a bit more definitively, with Freddie either conquering his demons, or going back to conquer the Master. Instead, it just kind of tapers off. Freddie goes home. The Master goes to London. The Master calls to Freddie, and he comes, but not to fall into the fold. The film, perfectly—but ultimately shallowly—rendered, drifts towards an ending.
When I left the theater I was satisfied, but not bowled over. It felt exact, like sitting through the final rehearsal before a Eugene O’Neill play opens, which, against reason, is without flaws, performed perfectly.
Stuprendan, Blara, and Caleb, however, expressed almost identical feelings of boredom. All around us, the rest of the audience seemed to feel the same. “That was boring,” I heard no less than five people within earshot complain to their friends.
In that sense, I suppose the film is academic, theoretical, but not necessarily a great work of art. Still, even if you only need to be reminded that intelligent films can be—and are still—made, it’s worth going to see.