Cliche upholds that the human mind is “an excellent servant, but a terrible master.” In The Master, his first film since 2007’s redoubtable There Will Be Blood, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson seeks to dramatize his and our ancient struggle with this terrible dichotomy, what it meant for us in the past, and what it means for us going forward.
The narrative proper centers around Freddie Quell (a savant-quality Joaquin Phoenix), an infinitely capricious and infinitely aroused ex-Naval officer. Introductory scenes show Freddie at his most civilized: he openly masturbates at a public beach, drinks rocket fuel, humps a sandcastle to the point of (his) orgasm. Still, he is rendered relatively peaceable by the discrete roles of wartime. He is a soldier; a mercilessly damaged soldier, but a soldier nonetheless. It is when World War II ends that Freddie, like compromised ship upon churning sea, is set hopelessly adrift, and Anderson’s choice to set the film in the immediate postwar suggests that it wasn’t just Freddie cast out to sea at that pivotal historical moment, it was the American consciousness as well. The end of macro, communal conflict ushered in the beginnings of diffuse and internalized individual psychological conflict, and we remain fucked up from this today. We are left to ask, “What are we supposed to do now?” and, unlike post-Revolutionary and post-Civil War America, seventy years of asking has offered no answers. Like Freddie, we remain adrift. Whenever we try to drop anchor, the sea proves bottomless.
Yet, Freddie perseveres and makes an attempt at rejoining society. He takes an ill-fated job as a portrait photographer in a department store (His portraits operate simultaneously as embodiments of American splendor and the cardboard placard that would stand beside the coffin at its funeral.). Quickly, old vices crop up. He seduces a female coworker in the store’s darkroom, but drinks himself insensate on the date he pleads her to go on with him. Whatever past haunts Freddie chases him continually into the moment, and the moment becomes a refuge from which Freddie cannot see out. Soon, he attacks a customer, a married, well-off man possessed of a stability Freddie will never know. Freddie flees, finds temporary employment on a cabbage farm before he, potentially, poisons a man with his alcoholic jet-fuel concoction, and must flee again. He runs to the docks of San Francisco, to the very edge of America, and discovers a yacht, a literally effulgent beacon on the dark nighttime waters. On this yacht is a man named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a “hopelessly inquisitive” man who may holds the answers to Freddie’s questions.
Original reports speculated that The Master was Paul Thomas Anderson’s fictionalized account of the birth and rise of Scientology, but the resemblances to Scientology merely constitute a nominal lens through which Anderson can examine and reexamine his true subject: subordination in all its forms. When Freddie meets Dodd, the film reconvenes, eschewing traditional structure and characterization for one of the most intense psychoanalytical studies ever put to film. It is neither an analysis of Freddie nor of Dodd, but of the bifurcated American consciousness personified by the id of Freddie and the superego of Dodd. For a lesser writer-director, this shift in direction would spell certain filmic collapse. For Paul Thomas Anderson, this shift isn’t a shift at all, but a straightaway forwarding of his genius.
Enabling this forwarding is the panoply of talent Anderson has surrounded himself with. The levels of physical and affective transformation Joaquin Phoenix (note his name’s primacy) and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams reach in this movie are indescribable. This is my describing those levels of physical and affective transformation: pu994397-3t477reg-79afa-9sdf-s9fh. One particular scene, which depicts the Scientology-esque “processing” of Freddie by Dodd and during which Phoenix does not blink for literal minutes, is as emotionally-charged and real as anything you will ever experience inside or outside of a movie theater. Even when seen, it cannot be believed. Simultaneously, The Master may be the most aesthetically beautiful film ever made (If you cannot see it in its 70mm print, airplanes exist and tickets are readily available.). A leitmotif of a ship’s wake appears again and again, at once tranquil and menacing, as eager to awe as it is to drown. Every facial tic, every ocular illume, every squelched emotion and exuberant display is chronicled with the utmost care. Even when seen, it cannot be believed.
The end result is a film singular in scope, execution, and quality, a film that explicitly aspires to accomplish what so much art fails to: it aspires to provide its audience an answer, even if the answer is not one easily heard. In another scene, Freddie and Dodd are imprisoned in dimensionally identical, adjacent cells. Freddie rails against his cell, slams his skull against his bunk’s underside, stomps a ceramic toilet to dust. Dodd calmly looks on, unmoved. Overt metaphors aside (id and superego separately and equally imprisoned side-by-side), Anderson’s import is that whatever stance one takes against one’s cage, the fact remains: one has a cage, and there is no escape. Upon their release, Dodd continues Freddie’s “processing” by subjecting him to the Ultimate Metaphor for The Modern Human Condition, which follows poetically as such:
The Ultimate Metaphor for the Human Condition
With eyes closed, I stagger to and fro
from opaque wall to translucent wall
struggling to describe how I feel
as the whole room watches.
Ultimately, the film’s most important scene is the one departure from Freddie’s point of view. Dodd stands at a hotel sink, washing his face. His wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), enters and proceeds to instruct his every future course of action as she emotionlessly jerks him off into the sink. His sexual release is his psychological incarceration, a momentary freeing that masks an eternal imprisonment. As Freddie is subordinate to licentious desire, Dodd is subordinate to Peggy, as Peggy is subordinate to the patriarchal hierarchy. No one is master, and no one is willing to admit it, and this unwillingness has plagued man since the advent of man. It is the plague of subordination, and that plague is Anderson’s answer. This is his answer: We are enslaved because we falsely believe we are free. Never will we escape our past. Never will reason trump emotion. We say we are certain only because we are anything, everything but. Whether you are subsumed by a substance, or subsumed by an idea, or subsumed by art, you are still subsumed. All that separates the founder of a religion from the nameless drunk in the gutter is the former’s willingness to be subordinated.
The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson’s refusal to be subordinated by any of order of cinematic orthodoxy. By mastering every precept of the art of filmmaking, Anderson is able to step beyond them, to train his eye and demonstrate that he cares enough about American life to look it square in the face, despite its deformity, its confusion, its refusal to look back. The Master looks at the irrefutable ugliness of being an American human being, and it will not look away, not even to blink.
Strawberry Verdict: 5 Out of 5 Strawberries