You could draw a number of through-lines connecting the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, including the tension between commercialization and humanity (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) or the toll it takes on somene just to get to the point where they realize they need change, or love, or redemption (Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, Boogie Nights). These are all totally valid lenses through which to view Anderson’s works, and that ability to operate on multiple levels simultaneously is part of what makes Anderson one of the best American filmmakers working today. The string that ties his films together for me, though — the concept I keep coming back to every time I revisit his work — is his protagonists’ struggle to honestly ask themselves what they’re pretending not to know, and what they’re pretending not to cause. Getting answers to those questions can be difficult, but getting the strength to ask them can be almost impossible. Anderson’s characters are caught in loops of denial and distraction, which often makes the idea of change or reconciliation self-destructive: merely becoming the type of person who wants to change themselves means changing themselves, so they find themselves stuck. Daniel Plainview’s spiral into wealth and madness; Frank T.J. Mackey’s refusal to do anything but quietly judge someone questioning his authority; Dirk Diggler’s hagiographical biography told through a mini-documentary. Lonely people trapped in lavish prisons they made for themselves.
The Master continues Anderson’s chronicling of the American psyche as self-mythologizing machine, this time focusing on the mirrored deceptions of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a group simply known as “the Cause,” and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally unstable, alcoholic drifter who gets swept up in the movement in the spring and summer of 1950. After serving in the Navy during World War II and leaving with some serious trauma, Freddie works a series of odd jobs with no goal beyond getting enough money and ingredients to keep making rotgut moonshine and staying drunk as often as possible. The radio announcer’s triumphal proclamation of V-J day — “The war is over. Peace is here.” — becomes a dark joke for Freddie, who’s so warped by the war and the rest of his life that he seems beyond repair. His journey through postwar America — gleaming, Technicolor, opulent, uncertain — comprises the first section of the film, and Anderson is in no rush to move the film or Freddie along any faster than is necessary. Part of this is just to illustrate Freddie’s idling, elliptical lifestyle, caroming from one job and city to the next with no plan or understandable rhythm. But it’s also because Anderson’s style has changed so radically from the maximalist explosions of interwoven plot that put him on the map in the mid- to late-1990s. Boogie Nights and Magnolia used chaos (visual and aural) to convey characters’ emotional crises and instability, revving from baseline to redline before breaking down and starting again. These were (and still are) fantastic films, but Anderson’s whole approach has changed now. Freddie’s as lost and broken as anyone Anderson’s ever brought to life on page and screen, but his existential nightmare is illustrated through boredom, repetition, and wordless flashbacks that come and go with no warning. His mind and spirit are fragmented, and the film’s first section is a gorgeously rendered reflection of that.
Freddie and Dodd wind up in each other’s lives with remarkable suddenness: Freddie walks past a dock one night, sees Dodd having a party aboard a modestly appointed yacht, and abruptly stows away. Dodd, an expansive man with a postured, self-aggrandizing air, allows Freddie to stay in hopes he’ll see the light of the Cause and find a way to heal his troubled mind. As has been reported by just about everyone, Dodd and the Cause are modeled on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, and Dodd’s method of “processing” people via a questionnaire about their memories and fears is similar to the Scientologists’ “auditing.” Yet the film isn’t a precise model of Scientology, nor is it a takedown of the practice. That’s not what Anderson’s interested in doing here. This isn’t a story about one man duped by another, but about two men who find in each other a new definition of themselves and a reason for being. It’s about the power of belief and the allure of salvation. In Freddie, Dodd sees a challenging convert; in Dodd, Freddie finds someone charismatic, interesting, and willing to listen. They’re never quite able to see that each wants the other’s affection for selfish reasons, Dodd for validation and Freddie for approval, and that woefully human disconnect between their actions and motives keeps them from ever finding equilibrium. They fight and make up, come together and grow apart, but never figure each other out.
What’s so riveting about the film and its central relationship is Anderson’s playful way with truth and desire. He’s made a movie about one man who claims to have discovered life’s ultimate truths and another who desperately wants to accept those truths, but the very nature of those revelations remains slippery and untenable. Dodd’s ship is called the Aletheia, after the Greek concept of truth or “unveiling” that was revived around 1950 by Heidegger in The Origin of the Work of Art. It’s a concept that speaks (if I have my ducks in a row here) to things becoming revealed, but it’s less about the nature of a specific truth than about the openness that precedes truth and makes its existence possible. Anderson’s works turn again and again to the concept of identity, and how we all struggle to reconcile our real selves with the ones we create for people: Eddie Adams becomes Dirk Diggler becomes Brock Landers until not even he knows who’s left, or Frank Mackey gives himself a new name in an attempt to become a new man. The Master is about two men wrapped up in that idea, in the tricky nature of dropping their masks and letting someone see, if only for a heartbeat, what might be underneath.
The performances are stunning. Anderson’s once again assembled an amazing cast, and he draws from them scenes of such heartbreak, such beauty and sadness, that your breath catches in your throat. Phoenix plays Freddie like a torn paper doll, walking with a hunched gait like his shoulders are made of twisted wire. He seems to be wincing away from the very nature of the world around him, stumbling through it with no clue to the cause of his pain. He’s an angry, volatile man, but every now and then he allows moments of real tenderness and yearning to come through. Even his name — Quell — is a sign from Anderson about what Freddie needs. Hoffman’s Dodd is the opposite: a composed, grand character who speaks with an affected accent that smacks of elocution lessons at a boarding school and firmly held beliefs about class and dignity, but when pushed, his accent slips, and he’s capable of such coarsely phrased, unbridled rage that he seems to tear the space around him. Hoffman and Phoenix are magnificent apart and magnetic together, and their relationship is colored by that fierce, almost romantic love men can feel for each other. Freddie’s first processing session is jaw-dropping: Phoenix’s energy and torment are palpable, and he wears his character’s heartache in every muscle and groove on his face. Amy Adams is equally wonderful as Peggy, Dodd’s wife and eager supporter, who worries about the effect Freddie has on her husband.
The film is predictably gorgeous to look at, too. Working with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (who shot Tetro and Youth Without Youth for Francis Ford Coppola), Anderson’s focus is on austerity and balance, with every frame a work of art. Scenes with Freddie and his fellow seamen killing time on a beach recall the best of Malick, but the film is undeniably Anderson’s. It’s shot partly in 70mm and composed within a 1.85:1 frame instead of the wider 2.35:1 Anderson’s used on his other films, making it feel at once more expansive and more manageable. It also allows for some wonderfully constructed, tight shots involving Phoenix and Hoffman, locked in conversations and battles they seem destined to fight forever. Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score, built on the spare drums and strings he brought to There Will Be Blood, is similarly effective. There are even moments that feel classically Anderson where the score is laid on top of a pop song (diegetic or otherwise) as a scene’s tension builds, often shot in unbroken takes that glide effortlessly through the scene.
The Master’s not exactly accessible, though. It could be Anderson’s least traditionally engaging film to date. It’s a difficult, opaque movie that operates in bursts. Scenes begin or end shortly before major turning points that are referenced later, and at least one scene might actually be a dream. (It’s debatable.) This is, again, a reflection of Anderson’s maturing style and his decision to let the final product mirror the broken, deceptive nature of the film’s central characters and driving relationship. In fact, many of the images and scenes depicted in the film’s promotional material, cut by Anderson himself, didn’t survive to the final version of the film. Anderson wrote and shot far more vignettes than he wound up needing or wanting, a reminder that for him, film is an organic thing, as much grown and shaped as it is planned from the start.
The Master is a cold film, but not an unfeeling or unforgiving one. Its greatness — in terms of scope and achievement, from narrative and performance on down — can’t be denied. Anderson’s style may have changed over the years, but he’s still a student of small moments and little changes, and of the minor instances that can change lives. His latest work is mesmerizing and challenging, gripping and damning, funny and confounding. It says something that he intended it to be seen in 70mm, too, on actual film instead of the digital projection that’s taken over today’s theaters. I was fortunate enough to see the film in that format, and I found myself marveling at how movies — real movies — can look. Instead of the slick edges and occasional noise of a digital image, I saw grain and light flickering on screen. Over the dim rattle of the projector, I remembered that film’s brightness is always complemented by those instantaneous flashes of darkness as the gate closes over the lamp and the sprockets push the next frame into view. The light and dark come together to carve dreams out of color and space, and it’s that symbiotic method of creation that best defines The Master. It’s a film about people trapped by their desperation to be understood, only occasionally able to make their true selves known. The answers here are in the little moments, flashing by so quickly your eye might not catch them. But they’re there. Paul Thomas Anderson knows they are. And I believe him.