Review by Ken Burke
This may be too enigmatic for some, but even if the story seems to lack a specific purpose (as if it has to have one) the acting is too superb to miss; it’s a Masterpiece.
Thomas Paul Anderson is a writer/director who doesn’t fool around with easy topics such as you might find in Robert Lorenz‘s baseball/family/romance tale Trouble with the Curve (more on that later). Instead, Anderson starts out seriously, then goes more deeply from there with such past work as There Will Be Blood (2007), Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and Magnolia (1999). In fact, the clashing dynamic in The Master between self-proclaimed-human-betterment- guru Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and born-to-lose-but-further-damaged-by-WW II-embodied-psychological-torment Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is reminiscent of Anderson’s previous triumph focused on the clash between “milkshake-drinking”-oil-tycoon Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and a young preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), who challenges Plainview’s determined charismatic command of all that he surveys. This is not to say that Anderson is simply repeating himself—except in producing an extremely powerful, probing film driven by Oscar-worthy acting (Lewis did win for Best Actor in … Blood and I think you can expect Phoenix to be a strong contender to do the same this year)—but rather to acknowledge that trauma bedevils all of us in some manner, driving some to take command of their compulsions and impose their will on anyone who stands in their way, as with Dodd and Plainview, while others are ruled by their passions, often finding themselves incapable of conquering their own demons or those that impose themselves on the more troubled in our midst, as with destiny-denied Freddie—who at least finally breaks away from his obsession with being part of Dodd’s movement but to what level of stability we’ll never know—and Eli, who should have disengaged himself sooner from Plainview but instead falls victim to the sheer force of the vicious oil baron, who’s “finished” only after he’s finished off everyone he can possibly conquer. Dobbs seeks a more peaceful empire—or congregation, as he’d likely fancy himself more in savior terms, bringing about physical healing and world peace—but one that he controls just as fully, either because he sees himself as a prophet of unknown truths that will lead to human liberation or because, like his son Val (Jesse Plemons) says, he’s “making it all up as he goes along” and needs to maintain the illusion of “master”-ful insight so that his disciples don’t revolt. Actually, these two films of Anderson’s would make a remarkable double-feature for those who could endure watching such titanic personalities for that many hours, but it’s never clear to us whether Freddie and Dodd can endure each other, even though there’s a strong battle of attraction and rejection constantly at work in their complex relationship.
Truly, despite the film’s title referring to Dodd and the hold he has over his increasingly-growing psychobabble movement, more of what we see here concerns Freddie from first to last scene, with his disturbing lack of development over the 137 min. running time, which never seemed too long for me (and based on the official website as noted below there are some further provocative scenes that sadly were cut) because Freddie establishes himself as fully worth whatever time it takes for us to explore him, just as he takes an enormous amount of time going through the repetitious ritual of Dodd’s “Processing” in order to find the supposed hidden perfect spirit that his mentor (if not fully his master) claims exists in every one of us as we’ve lived through countless lives over trillions (not merely billions, as “mistaken” scientists claim) of years, carrying the wounds of mistakes or traumas from eons ago that continue to compromise our present and hold us back from returning to that ideal state of creation. Some will see Hindu/Buddhist influences here with allusions to the struggle with karma and the quest for Nirvana aided by the inspiration from a spiritual leader; others will see similarities to L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology, with its “revelations” that we are all limited versions of our true extraterrestrial selves, needing guidance through the methods of those (who have somehow become) already liberated to regain our original destinies. Anderson admits that The Master takes its initial cues from Hubbard and his “religion” (pardon my sarcasm, but after spending a lifetime unwinding from the metaphysics of Catholicism that ruled my childhood consciousness it’s going to take more than past-life regression therapy to convince me of the worthiness of this “suddenly-discovered insight” by just one singular soul, whether presented more biographically about Hubbard or fictionally as Dodd, intent on helping the rest of us unfulfilled mortals become “de-hypnotized” from our ancient delusions), but he says he never intended it as historical to the situation of Scientology, just as Orson Welles claimed that Citizen Kane (1941; still the ultimate five-star film for me, despite the recent Sight and Sound international poll that finally pushed Kane to #2 behind Hitchcock's Vertigo ) was inspired by the life of William Randolph Hearst but informed by other early 20th century power-brokers as well, even including a statement to that effect in the early newsreel-screening-room scene (although such denials from Anderson haven’t fully dissuaded angry Scientologists—thank Allah that he didn’t take his inspiration from the life of Muhammad—and it’s clear that a lot of details in Kane are very precise to Hearst, including the true meaning of “Rosebud,” neither a sled in the film nor a screenwriter’s childhood bicycle, but let’s not probe into such delicate matters in a pubic forum).
Once again, though, I’m meandering towards Dodd, following the lead of the film’s title, when the character we spend much more time in trying to know is forlorn Freddie. Certainly Freddie is harder to relate to than his more outgoing companion, with his constant drunkenness a distancing factor in that it enhances his tendencies to take violent verbal or physical action against anyone who offends him plus it shows his utter disregard for his health as he’s eager to drink almost anything that gives him a charge, whether it’s fuel from a torpedo, a concoction of photo processing chemicals, some lethal mixture made while working in the cabbage fields that poisons a co-worker, Lysol straight from a medicine cabinet, or one of his homemade hooch combinations cut with paint thinner. Even Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams, in a fiercely protective mode of her husband’s work and legacy), insists that Freddie get sober if he wants to stay with Dodd’s “Cause” troupe, but right after he promises that he’ll clean up he’s out on the front porch emptying his flask into his belly rather than into the bushes so he’s clearly too hooked to dry out. He’s a frightful mess of a human being, but watching his defiant determination to be what he is no matter what the consequences is the main attraction of this very un-commercial probe into the non-Darwinian underbelly of the human condition. Freddie could never survive as one of “the fittest,” but knowing that so few of us can is what makes him so fascinating as both an anti-role model and a warning as to what sad fate may await any of us when life becomes too overwhelming.
Freddie’s also too horny to hold back his sexual desires (so that in one afternoon party scene in the Philadelphia home of well-healed Dodd devotee Helen Sullivan [Laura Dern] suddenly all the women are naked, seemingly as a manifestation of Freddie’s fantasies—although I’d argue this could easily be a visualization of Dodd’s fantasies, especially given the following scene of Peggy laying down the limits of her husband’s extracurricular activities even while she masturbates him into a sink in a marvelous demonstration of her ultimate “power behind the throne”), except he never seems to connect with a woman until the very end of the film when he’s gone to England to meet up with Dodd again after breaking away from his influence. But, after being rejected by the angry Peggy yet again for his uncontrolled weaknesses and warned by Dodd that if he doesn’t acquiesce now he’ll be Dodd’s enemy even into their next lives, Freddie wanders off again and finally links up with a local lady in a pub. His attempt to give her a weak version of the “Processing” while they’re still physically entangled is sad enough, but then the film ends with a repeat of what we saw back at the beginning in the last days of WW II in the South Pacific as he dry humps a sand sculpture of a woman on an island beach then jerks off into the ocean as we see only his backside finishing off his needs, with the film’s final shot returning to him lying contented with his “sand girl.” At least in these two instances Freddie finishes what he desires unlike in the rest of the film where he has a clumsy encounter with a co-worker during her break at a San Francisco Capwells’ department store (he even takes her on a date later and falls asleep in a restaurant) or is variously seducing or being seduced by Dodd’s daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) even though her father invited Freddie to her wedding right after they all first met (or is this just a manifestation of Freddie’s desires shown on screen as if actual; that’s the constant quandary with cinema, that because it’s all photographic the implication is actuality even when an interpretation could be that what we see is merely a subjective projection from a character’s mind, as is likely with the naked women at the afternoon gathering—this cinematic conceptual conundrum has vexed film theorists from the very beginning of the medium). Freddie’s romantic problems are traced back to his unrequited love for Doris Solstad (Madisen Beaty), who’s only 16 but friendly with Freddie before he goes off to war, is kind enough to write to him while he’s in combat, welcomes him home in peacetime when she’s now just old enough to be reasonable for him, but then he, for some reason apparently unknown to him as well as to us, ships out again on a freighter to China thereby losing his connection to Doris forever (although he tries to rekindle it after his travels with Dodd but finds that he’s too late as she’s now married and long gone from their original Massachusetts home).
Freddie needs love at a level that aches for connection and consummation; however, he never seems to find it except in his better moments with Dodd, whether they are bonding over the “master’s” yearning for Freddie’s toxic homebrew or turning an embrace over Freddie’s release from jail (after defending Dodd during his arrest by attacking the cops, followed by a profane dispute from adjoining cells—Freddie’s explosive temper is a constant in this story, evoking allusions to a tabloid spread of Sean Penn breaking up with Madonna) into a wrestling roll on the lawn at Helen’s home/retreat for Dodd’s cult followers. Dodd even sends Freddie off for good with a sadly sung version of “I’d like to get you on a slow boat to China, all to myself alone,” implying not so much a homoerotic union but a sort of soulmate connection that Dodd has yet to find even in his most devoted followers (he explodes at worshipful Helen when she questions his change of “Processing” procedure in his follow-up book to his original “scripture,” The Cause, even after telling her and the rest of his congregation that “The source of all is you” and “Laughter is the secret” to unlocking our limitations). The initial “Processing” encounter between the two men is marvelously shot as mostly a ¾ closeup on Freddie as Dodd interrogates him with provocative questions, producing a sense of such intimacy as to push the limits of Platonic vs. physical engagement (although one could argue that the whole concept of Platonic love actively incorporates the physical along with the respectful emotional if one looks at the male activities of Classic Greek society as well as its philosophical idealism—not that there’s anything wrong with that). Nothing beyond the level of admirational attraction between the two male principals of The Master is ever implied, but they have a struggle toward connective closure that clearly disturbs Dodd’s wife.
As the film makes abundantly clear, Peggy is Dodd’s most devoted follower as she’s the one who protects her husband’s legacy from seeming distractions like Freddie (Or maybe he’s a spy—but spying for what purpose? On this matter she just slips into paranoia.), even as she seems to psychically will Freddie to do her dirty work of physically assaulting anyone who speaks the blasphemy of disagreeing with her husband’s “enlightened” proclamations. Amy Adams commands this role in a most effective manner, presenting a steely resolve that sets up a sense of an enclosed vortex around her husband which allows him to alternate between being the robust life of the party and the spiritual leader who has assumed a fatherly persona over his flock as they seek to follow his process of analytical past-life regression that will seemingly purge them of the weakness that they acquired in one or more of their previous incarnations. When I see Peggy’s fierce power in this film I can’t help but be reminded of another stern redheaded wife (although older), Ruth Fowler (Sissy Spacek), in Todd Field’s 2001 In the Bedroom where a couple’s son is killed by the jealous ex-husband of the son’s older lover; in this gripping presentation of how the parents’ grief is transformed into homicidal revenge as the father (played by Tom Wilkinson) is steered by his quiet but vengeful spouse, I can’t help but think of the connections to Peggy Dodd, a woman who constructs a wall of unbreachable sanctuary around her controversial husband when he’s attacked by outside critics but clearly understands his unholy passions and shortcomings as well (including his determination to keep Freddie within the fold and bring him into the state of “bliss” that Dodd and his family apparently enjoy). There are clear implications here that Peggy may be the true “Master” in this operation, especially toward the end when Dodd takes Freddie to the desert outside of Phoenix, Arizona (after Dodd’s first national conference in that city to promote his visions) and has no control over his protégé simply riding off on Dodd’s motorcycle beyond the grip of the “prophet” as Freddie then unsuccessfully tries to rebuild his life with the now-unavailable Doris, who's not back in New England as he wrongfully assumes.
When all of the plot elements have been laid to rest, nothing has been resolved in that Dodd is still expanding his dubious operation into another country where children will be indoctrinated into his worldview (even son Val seems on board with the operation by this point), Doris is completely gone as a possible salvation for Freddie’s neurosis (despite his finally being accepted by Dodd as cleansed after innumerable trips between a window and a wood-paneled wall in Helen’s home, but that doesn’t lead to the psychic liberation that Freddie had been seeking), and Peggy is more in control of the furthering of The Cause than even her husband (and I may be in a distinct minority in responding to Helen’s praise of the propriety of Dodd's methodology as the successful “Cause way”—superior to other forms of knowing ourselves through our past lives—as a pun, because it reminded me of my childhood home in Galveston, TX where the only bridge off that island was called The Causeway, a necessary path to salvation when hurricanes threatened the stability of our homes, just as the hurricanes of past experiences threaten the stability of Dodd’s followers unless they travel his “Cause way” to past-life understanding/liberation and re-achieve their original state of perfection [getting us to another religious allusion here, the primevally-perfect state of Adam and Eve in Judeo-Christian theology’s Garden of Eden prior to their “original sin” against the dictates of their Creator and their ensuing expulsion from the Garden]). However, you don’t have to share any of the spiritual-tradition implications of past-life purging or regained perfection in the human sphere to appreciate what Anderson has done in The Master with his juxtaposition of the ego-stroked needs of Dodd to build an embraced recognition for his vision/ concoction (be that as it may) to the crushed humanity of Freddie with his desperate attempts to find something beyond his unfulfilled desires for a mate and his need to quench his stability search with something beyond rotgut booze. The Master is certainly not an easy film to watch if you want a clear narrative conflict-resolution result such as you’d find in Trouble with the Curve (comments soon, I promise), but as exposure of what we flawed humans (whether we originate in another galaxy or have lost our awareness of our own links to the great Oversoul or just have no clue as to how to tame the compulsions that lead us back to our animalistic origins) must wrestle with on a regular basis this is a work of great explorational poetry, one of the rare, challenging journeys into the soul of humankind to grace the public screen and one that deserves to be seen in a communal setting and discussed at length afterward.
But, as much as I try to promise myself that I’ll balance my work commitments and sleep needs (not to mention spending priceless time with Nina Kindblad, the world’s most wonderful wife; Happy Birthday on Oct. 3!) by not writing too much in these weekly reviews, the Universe (however old it may be, Dr. Dodd) keeps alerting my consciousness to resonances in other media encounters that just need to be mentioned in context of my formal review of the week. This time the connection comes with the chance rental of a DVD of German New Wave auteur Wim Wenders' marvelous 1984 Paris, Texas in which Harry Dean Stanton as a personal and social trainwreck, Travis Henderson, and Nastassja Kinski as his estranged wife, Jane, gave passionate performances against the backdrop of the wide world of Texas from the desert emptiness near Terlingua to the urban anonymity of Houston (more on this at http://www.wimwenders.com/movies/movies_spec/paristexas/paris_texas.htm if you like). Similar to Freddie in The Master, Travis just doesn’t fit in society nor can he find a successful connection to a kindred soul, although he does finally forge a link with his initially-reluctant son, Hunter (Hunter Carson), only to sacrifice that bond by leaving him with his newly-found mother after four years of separation when Travis once again disappears from their lives, but truly for their benefit this time. I realize that Wenders had tremendous help in bringing to life this aching story of a troubled man just not destined to ever cleanse himself of his demons (again, like Freddie, who will never be whole no matter how much he tries to patch up his cracks with suicidal booze) by working from a superlative Sam Shepard story, but the German director (as well as his cast) deserves full 5-star praise here (literally; I’m being extremely generous this week) for capturing the sense of an American cultural and spiritual wilderness, transforming the opening empty landscape along with Travis’ maddeningly silent presence into a slowly-unfolding exploration of a pair of devastated psyches that concludes with a dual soliloquy that rivals the best in Hamlet (and speaking of plays and Shepard, if you ever get a chance to see a production of his Buried Child—as I once did on Broadway—rev up all the gumption you’ve got and force yourself to watch a family deteriorate into the worst of Tennessee Williams territory with a conclusion not easily forgotten).
And not to trivialize anything noted so far but I guess I should admit one other recent connection to The Master as well, that of Amy Adams in Trouble with the Curve, co-starring Justin Timberlake and Clint Eastwood, produced under Eastwood’s Malpaso auspices but directed by Robert Lorenz . Adams constantly proves her screen charisma and versatility, here starting as a young lawyer hardened by the sexism in her old-white-guy (I speak from long experience)-dominated firm and the early abandonment by her widower father, but she finally warms up to Dad’s need for her in what’s essentially a seeing-eye-dog role to save his last career years as a baseball scout with fading vision as well as to younger scout Timberlake’s need for a companion he respects and is strongly attracted to. The end result praises the downtrodden and gives comeuppance to the bullies but in a melodramatic manner more akin to Eastwood’s infamous recent “dialogue” with the “Obama” chair than to what we’ve grown to respect him for as a director, so unless you just can’t get enough baseball as we inch toward the playoffs or just need a reassuring tale rather than one that offers emotional confrontation at the deepest human level I’d recommend challenging yourself with anything noted above, leaving Trouble with the Curve to its own troubles trying to find a result worthy of its possibilities (but if you insist then you can easily learn more about it, starting with http://troublewiththecurve.warnerbros.com/). You’ll certainly find Adams to be ultimately a more commanding presence in The Master, but she does get the last word in Trouble with the Curve, topping her father with an “I’ll think about it!” retort of her own, echoing his feisty independence. You think about it as well and choose what works best for you, even if you need a little “Processing” to help clear your mind.
If you’d like to explore more about The Master here are some suggested links:
http://www.themasterfilm.com/ (supposedly the official site but all I find there are 5 film clips which, interestingly, have short scenes and shots not to be found in the final cut of the film and notices of screenings in different cities that are long past; you can also go to http://weinsteinco.com/ but you won’t find much there either, just a standard trailer such as the first one below—although you’re given opportunities to Like the Weinstein Company on Facebook so maybe we’re just not supposed to get inside this film too far through these sources)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dWdkUIZ59E (interview with director/writer Thomas Paul Anderson)
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