Too overblown in the praise department? Unfair to Paul Thomas Anderson to heave his latest film up on the mantle next to the single most celebrated movie in the history of cinema?
Sorry, folks. Had to do it.
Anyone who reads me knows how much I admired Anderson’s 1999 Magnolia. I have that film slotted behind my two favorite Brando accomplishments (both Elia Kazan films), A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, on my list of all-time favorites.
So, does The Master now fit into that rarefied air? Too soon to tell. It’s a film I will need to see at least twice more to fully absorb and comprehend all of the poetry in the script and performances, all of the spellbinding imagery on display; the meshing of the Jonny Greenwood music and the atmosphere. This is virtuoso filmmaking on the highest level available to audiences – shot in old school Panavision Super 70mm for those of us who still prefer film over digital.
Anderson stalwart Philip Seymour Hoffman locks horns with the ever eccentric and enigmatic Joaquin Phoenix to deliver a pair of performances so deeply committed and emotionally layered we may never see another tandem like them. I will need to dedicate an entire feature detailing what Hoffman and Phoenix delivered, but only after I watch the film a second time.
The opening scenes of The Master were leading me towards writing the words “Paul Thomas Anderson may have inadvertently made one of the most compelling anti-war films ever.”
We see WWII come to a close and a room full of traumatized soldiers being briefed for what opportunities may await them back in civilized society. Phoenix plays Naval veteran ‘Freddie Quell,’ a perverted loner who appears to be suffering from acute post traumatic stress disorder.
While this film has much to say, it is only a peripheral commentary on our callous treatment regarding traumatized soldiers returning to the work force.
Our two protagonists first meet aboard the private party boat of ‘Lancaster Dodd’ (Hoffman), at sea celebrating the wedding of his daughter. A sweet, maternal voice awakens the stow-away ‘Freddy’ from a deep alcohol sleep and seductively takes him to meet The Master.
“Why all the skulking and sneaking?” The Master asks the subject. “Work can’t be that hard to find.” After ‘Freddie’ mumbles something incoherent. ‘You have wandered from the proper path.”
‘Freddie’s’ leverage? He has an unusual chemist’s skill for mixing various elements with paint thinner to produce an intoxicating elixir, one that The Master immediately takes to – giving Hoffman the opportunity to deliver this doozie:
“I will give you a reprieve from your naughtiness as a stow-away if you make me some more.”
Man, do I love Anderson’s gift for dialogue.
The comparisons to L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology are not unfair and surely not accidental. Let’s not forget that director Anderson induced one of the Church’s leading front men, Tom Cruise’s most memorable and daring performances as ‘Frank T.J. Mackey’ in Magnolia. Suffice it to say, Cruise is not thrilled with The Master.
But to follow the narrative of this picture down that rabbit hole would be to short change yourself the greater discussion on the table.
Must man serve a master? If not, is man merely another beast, subject to primal cravings and desires? Does compliance to a master lead to happiness or despair?
Here is what I have come up with as a nuts & bolts, reduced to its simplest form analysis of the thematic films from the supernaturally talented Paul Thomas Anderson.
Hard Eight is about the power of guilt and our ability to conquer it.
Boogie Nights is about the pain and power of rejection.
Magnolia is about the pain and power of regret.
Punch-Drunk Love is about the anxiety of being bullied and the power gained from overcoming it.
There Will be Blood is about power and the pain that results from its corruption.
But…where do humans gain their confidence from? It can’t merely be from achievement, recognition, or accolades. From power? Not necessarily. I think power can be a substitute or even a mask for confidence. It has to come from love – more specifically the love of your mother.
The exquisite Amy Adams plays ‘Peggy Dodd’ in The Master. She is the devoted wife to ‘Lancaster’ and his theology called ‘The Cause.’ But she is so much more than his wife.
The Master is about the power and persuasion of confidence.
‘Dodd’ displays his confidence as an orator, but is only capable of doing so because of the love and security given him by ‘Peggy.’
‘Freddie’ only has confidence when he is acting out through his genitals, a perpetual hunger to return to where he came from through copulation.
Then there’s the false and temporary confidence gained from alcohol. And isn’t that what brings these two men together?
“You will be my guinea pig,” The Master tells ‘Freddie.’
Confidence. A confidence man. A con man.
Are we all “con” men?
God bless Paul Thomas Anderson for asking such profound questions through his work. He is a once-in-a-generation filmmaker; and I, for one, hope he never loses interest in tackling the subject matters that connect us all.
“This is something you do for a billion years, or not at all,” ‘Peggy’ scolds both ‘Freddie’ and her husband. “This isn’t fashion.”