Director/Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
By Roderick Heath
Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have begun to feel like events, in part because of his relatively sparse and considered output, reflecting artisanal personality and integrity of purpose over his body of work. Even when his films seem so large and encompassing that anything else might seem like a grace note, he manages to contemplate their lacks and feel his way through to new ground. Free of swerves into lucrative franchise outings or one-off experiments, Anderson has the rare mystique of a major American film artist and the truest inheritor of the mantle from progenitors like Scorsese, Kubrick, Malick, and Altman. Anderson’s cinematic argot is highly sophisticated and increasingly less mannered in its debts. But what’s most intriguing about his oeuvre is how literary it’s starting to seem. Anderson seems well aware and engaged with the thematic trove of modern American writing and even contributes to it in his own way, but with a natural filmmaker’s understanding of the medium, ready and willing to translate his concerns into a vital play of images.
Whereas his first three films, Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), and Magnolia (1999), felt to a great extent like imaginative adaptations of short stories or collections, he moved into a more novelistic territory with the woozy absurdism of Punch-Drunk Love (2002), before his first actual, if very loose, adaptation, There Will Be Blood (2007), based on Upton Sinclair, a fact in itself suggestive of Anderson’s wider range of interest in the American canon than expected. His latest, The Master, though an original work, also feels like a transformed version of some forgotten mid-century classic. Anderson’s themes are consistent, even as, like a jeweller, he turns them over to regard the glint and flaws of each facet.
His most consistent theme has the mentor-pupil relationship with a father-son feeling apparent, if not always actual. The relationship is usually depicted in the midst of a kind of inorganic family that offers shelter to misfits and outsiders, with the mentor figure often revealed as deeply flawed, and the pupil often malformed, volatile, inarticulate, even dim, whilst feeling their way through to new maturity. In Hard Eight, the flawed mentor-father dominated as tragic antihero; in Boogie Nights, he was part of a gallery. In Magnolia, Anderson made a son, rather than a father a wielder of strange, almost cultish power and wisdom. In There Will Be Blood, the relationship was complicated by the splitting of the pupil figure into a surrogate son and a doppelganger rival, and the mentor stripped of positive patriarchal qualities. Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson’s only foray into comedy proper of an uneasy brand (though, like Kubrick, all his films have a comedic or absurdist undertone), interestingly turned the relationship into a romantic one, turning his impishly malformed misfit into a “hero.”
Anderson also has a fascination for the peculiar subcultures of American life that throw up bodies of lore straining to become self-perpetuating codes, reinventions of traditional systems of religion and philosophy straining to become ahistorical in their purity, be it the male-dominant flimflam of Frank T. J. Mackey in Magnolia, the reductive capitalist thought of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, the gambling techniques in Hard Eight, or the porno-therapeutic jive of Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights. Such world views nonetheless are evolved to help the characters survive in a world that often seems pointless, arbitrary, and assailing. Even the eventual climax to Plainview’s weltanschaung—murder—maintained a predatory, rather than nihilistic, understanding of existence. Perhaps inevitably, The Master moves closer to contending with this specific theme in one of its archest possible manifestations.
The real-life model for The Master’s unctuous titular guru is L. Ron Hubbard, but like Charles Foster Kane, another deliberately fashioned icon of modern American hubris, he could be composed of a thousand similar figures, from Charles Atlas to Anthony Robbins, ever to flog an easy path to fulfilment and understanding with a charisma-oozing grin. But “The Master,” Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is not so much focus as catalyst and momentary object of study, watched by Anderson through Freddie’s (Joaquin Phoenix) eyes. Freddie is the pivotal figure of this tale, imbued, like many everyman protagonists found in the kind of pulp sci-fi Hubbard used to write, with mysterious and inchoate powers he himself doesn’t understand. Much like the gormless blankness John (John C. Reilly) in Hard Eight gave mentor Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) to write the fine arts of gambling on and Dirk’s massive phallus in Boogie Nights provided Jack Horner’s nascent industry with its essential product, Freddie offers to Dodd the perfect mirror-opposite to work his craft on.
In the early scenes of The Master, Freddie is in the U.S. Navy as the war in the Pacific is winding down, a portrait in perversity that begs the question whether the war has damaged him deeply or merely exacerbated his strangeness and alienation. Glimpsed on the beaches of beatific Pacific isles, like the devolved beast-men left behind by the dreamy Rousseauian warriors of Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1997), Freddie and his fellow sailors drink, wrestling like hairless apes in the surf, and fantasize about sex. One is glimpsed jerking off with jism dripping in the ocean. Freddie, without quite the same operating governor between his desires and his circumstances as a “normal” person, tries to overcome lack with substitution. He brews moonshine liquor and molds a woman out of sand with which to have sex, his strange, fumbling play-act exemplifying strange and inadequate sexuality.
The next we see of Freddie, he’s being released from a VA hospital after being given a pep talk. Most films to deal with the veteran experience deal with trauma in its least subtle forms. The Master avoids any overt statement about what happened to land Freddie in the hospital, but it’s clear that in returning from the war he’s less than a complete and functional human being. Nonetheless, he lands a job in a department store as a photographer, taking lush snapshots that preserve the glossy familial pretences of the age in visual amber. Surrounded by the paraphernalia of postwar domesticity and aspiration, Freddie watches a floor model, Martha (Amy Ferguson), clad in a fur coat strutting around the store, a vision of desirability in the midst of retail paradise. As in The Hurt Locker (2008) and some other recent variations on the classic war drama, there’s an overtone here of satire in positing a consumer society panoply as the absurd counterpoint to the war-damaged human’s perspective, but with an added, subtler edge in evoking sensuality as well, and the basic human drives towards the paraphernalia of success and stability—illusory to a large extent, as revealed when Freddie manages to get the model into his darkroom. There she protests she’s a good girl but lets him fondle her underwear whilst drinking his rotgut: there are also the drives for quick flings, easy sex, numbing intoxicants, and everything else that buys off time. Freddie falls asleep when out on a date with her, a humiliation that seems, in part, to make him lose his cool with a photographic subject, degenerating into battle in the aisles as a doughy businessman tries to clobber the scrambling, skinny retread. Freddie is next revealed to have sunk into the day-labouring class, picking vegetables in Salinas. He has to flee when his moonshine poisons one of his fellow workers. This is Freddie’s nadir: he’s glimpsed loping by moonlight across the fields in frantic flight, moving very quickly and yet, of course, not seeming to get anywhere.
After wandering for who knows how long, he drunkenly takes refuge on a boat where Dodd is attending a party that sails languorously out to sea. As much as There Will Be Blood was obsessed with the earth and associated imagery of oil, blood, digging, and fire, The Master is a film obsessed, visually and thematically, with water and voyaging, filled with hints of mythopoeic meaning vibrating under its occasionally obscure textures, allusions to The Odyssey, Moby-Dick and the canon of nautical lore recorded in shanties and folk-poems. One core scene finds Dodd singing “Maid of Amsterdam (I’ll Go No More A-Roving),” possibly also a reference to John Huston’s film of Melville’s tome, where the song features prominently. Freddie, like Odysseus, is a voyager who’s been stranded by war far away from his love, whilst the sailor’s pledge to return to a girl echoes a thousand folk songs. Freddie’s semi-accidental embarkation with Dodd proves a turning point, a voyage of discovery where the navigator doesn’t have a map and the sailor is a loon. Anderson returns repeatedly to the image of a ship’s boiling wake cutting through a sea of rapturous blue, and the question boils up as to whether Freddie wants a homecoming or to recapture the freedom of a sailor. A common conflation in classical mythology sees the sea as feminine, maternal life-giving in unity, and there are hints throughout the film of such a conflation, complete with oedipal overtones in the image of the sailor masturbating over the waves, whilst Freddie’s female love icon is sculptured from the seaside sand.
Conceptually speaking, The Master seems smaller than Anderson’s maximalist efforts (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood) with its focus on another oddball subculture and a deeply ironic kind of male love story, but actually it represents a waypoint between the breadth of cultural focus in those films and the intimate, queasy situation comedy of Punch-Drunk Love. Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s superlative cinematography, a love letter to the forcibly outmoded yet still unsurpassed expressivity of 70mm, ironically focuses for much of the film on faces and bodies in close communication rather than David Lean-esque expanses or the widescreen catechism of There Will Be Blood. But it consistently utilises the format’s crisp, exacting textures to supercharge the film’s visuals with a quality that’s often hyperreal, rarely departing from the naturalistic, and yet poised constantly on the edge of the abstract and the hallucinogenic: household curtains waver with fiery substance, ocean waves glitter like a sea of jewels, suburban homes hover in reticent tranquillity in the daylight. In the very first shot, Freddie, under his navy helmet appears only as wounded eyes and sun-weathered skin between hunks of military metal; much later, Freddie’s face is glimpsed abutting his sand-sculptured female breasts, as if composed of the same billion-fold fragments and longing to merge. When Dodd’s yacht sails out from San Francisco, its decks are aglow with light and the careless vivacity of the rich and victorious, sailing out under the Golden Gate Bridge with the Stars and Stripes fluttering in the twilight.
The first encounter between a pie-eyed Freddie and Dodd is not shown, but rather recounted when Freddie awakens aboard Dodd’s yacht, and the erstwhile guru wants more of the alluringly wicked concoction Freddie fed him: what’s poison for others is mother’s milk for Dodd, naturally, as both men turn potentially noxious ingredients into something invigorating and enjoyably unhealthy. Dodd’s loosely defined pseudo-scientific-therapeutic organisation, dubbed The Movement and built around a weighty tome of Dodd’s, utilises principles of psychoanalysis and cognitive therapy, but it rejects the purely psychological. Like Scientology, it is based in a mythology of residual spirits of ancient aliens that torment humans into irrational behaviour and pain, and the possibility that empirical reality is actually an elaborately constructed cover story for an infinitely stranger universe. Dodd’s cunningly built system releases individuals of angst that their own failings are responsible for their predicaments whilst still offering the hope of programmatic steps towards catharsis. Realities within realities seem an apt field for Dodd to dabble in as they seem to define his life, however, as the question as to what degree he’s in charge of his own mythmaking enterprise arises. His wife Peggy (Amy Adams) seems to control and direct his ambitions, and tries to ward off Freddie, thinking that one day he might prove a bigger liability than asset for their little enclave. Dodd’s inner circle is, in essence, a family: he’s just married his daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) to clean-cut but ethnically ambiguous Clark (Rami Malek) and crows about how his teachings have transformed the institution of marriage.
Dodd leads Freddie into an extended session of pseudo-therapeutic analysis where he manages to extract certain apparently salient facts about Freddie, including that he once slept with his aunt (“I was drunk and she looked good!”). Or is Freddie lying? Dodd seems immediately and deeply fascinated by Freddie as his damaged alter-ego and test subject. Freddie is the ideal object of Dodd’s dabbling, not just because Freddie’s troubles present a challenge to his methods, but because Freddie’s tics and traumas are so close to the surface that anything Dodd throws at him seems elevated to the level of profundity purely because it’s so easy to get a powerful reaction from Freddie, no matter if his technique is happenstance, inefficacious, or just plain improvised quackery. If Freddie was couched as the narrative voice of a novel, it would probably come across like one of Faulkner’s stranger, most impenetrably hazy and impressionistic voices, a few steps above The Sound and the Fury’s Benjy, full of crude epiphanies and strange segues from the immediate into the surreally earthy.
In a lengthy, vital sequence, Dodd subjects Freddie to an exercise, before an audience of awed followers waiting for great revelations, which sends him walking from wall to wall in a large room and describing what he touches. This seems to push Freddie away from reality, even as his hunger for tactile expression comes out, kissing glass and seeming almost to transform substance with his will. But eventually he is reduced to faking when he’s kept performing the exercise after all the observers, including Dodd, have gone to lunch, making the noises of his motions and crying out whatever new imaginary texture enters his head, again raising the possibility he’s wilfully fulfilling Dodd’s needs so his own will be met. Anderson presents this scene intercut with another exercise, in which Freddie and Clark, who may know that his wife has made passes at Freddie or at least fears Freddie has designs on her are instructed by Dodd to exchange withering assessments of each other without reacting.
This sequence is realised in one of Anderson’s signature touches, a rhythmic, extended, usually cross-cut montage that encapsulates an interlude of behaviour that seems to be reaching an apogee whilst actually finally breaking down. Moreover, what’s fascinating about Dodd’s “therapies” is their intensity as interpersonal games of show and tell, encouraging his subjects to unveil themselves and lock themselves in with arbitrary rules that strip them of power. Freddie’s reasons for playing along with such flimflam are never spelt out, but they’re still fairly obvious: like so many Anderson characters, he’s happy to be absorbed into a circle that makes him seem special in an otherwise contemptuous world where he can barely survive. As an Anderson character, he’s a blend of the director’s early, slightly dim seekers and the tormented, incoherent lost men on the periphery. At the same time, Freddie feels and looks like an exactly observed type, those men who exist at the periphery of life, with a distorted aspect that makes them look crippled even when there’s nothing greatly wrong with them.
Freddie confronts and attacks those who dare to criticise or interrogate Dodd, but Freddie himself reveals in a distraught jailhouse interlude that he knows Dodd’s verbiage is bullshit. He’s more like some roaming ronin desperate for an overlord who’ll give him a place in his castle, a patch of livery, and something to fight for, no matter how nebulous and suspect. Freddie becomes, thus, one of those figures usually caricatured in narratives, a goon protecting The Master from dissent. Dodd’s own encounters with such voices provoke an amusing/alarming explosiveness on his part, as when he’s grilled by John More (Christopher Evan Welch), an enquiring mind who’s concerned that Dodd’s claims to able to cure diseases like leukaemia might result in actual patients taking refuge in his quackery. Dodd blurts, “If you already know the answers to you questions, then why ask, pig-fuck?!” Freddie takes matters into his own hands and visits More to give him a hiding. Even when Dodd’s son Val (Jesse Plemons) assures Freddie that his father makes it all up as he goes, Freddie starts to get rough with him, too, though Freddie later suggests he knows Val is speaking the truth.
In addition to Freddie’s ill-judged liaison with his aunt, his past reveals he had wanderlust even before the war, when he left his impossibly innocent 15-year-old amour Doris Solstad (Madisen Beaty) to go sailing and never returned to her. The Freddie glimpsed in flashback is altogether a more vital person, quiet rather than asocial, romantic, skinny, and odd but not the gnarled wretch of the present. Now Freddie’s pervasively erotic imagination, which interprets every Rorschach blot held up before him by a doctor (Mike Howard) at the VA hospital in an obscene manner, seems fundamentally at odds with such sweetness and innocence, as though Freddie’s actually been locked in a frieze, taking solace in his imaginings of boundless sensual indulgence. Like the dirty boy in class, he hands around notes that read “Do you want to fuck?” to attractive Movement females whilst they’re listening to Dodd make recorded pronouncements like “You are not ruled by your emotions.” Freddie comes across by comparison like a realised portion of the id, a Marx Brother without the cheeky humour but all the perverse, incidental energy. Phoenix, wizened by comparison since his impersonation of Johnny Cash, his cleft palate scar often unflatteringly emphasised in the intimate force of Malaimare’s photography, elaborates Freddie’s simian quality with his over-large clothes and wounded sneer.
Whilst much of The Master feels somehow on the edge of detachment from reality with its cryptic elisions and occasional, almost dreamy discursions (like its voyaging scenes), it dips into an outright hallucination only once, during a party for The Movement where Dodd regales his adherents with the above-mentioned sea shanty. The scene commences normally, but as Freddie’s viewpoint is established, suddenly all the women in the room are naked, including the pregnant Peggy and the elderly musicians, as Dodd cavorts and croons, with his charisma and fatuous self-delight laid as bare as the female flesh, Freddie, true to form, conceiving Dodd’s power in sexual terms and delighting in the thought of this kind of power. Being a guru is the ticket to major pussy, of course, but Freddie also comes to perceive the erotic power The Master has on more levels than the immediately sexual, his capacity to seduce and intrude on the mind. That Freddie’s imagining is all too accurate is confirmed in the next scene as Peggy malevolently jerks off a hung-over Dodd whilst warning him that if he does want to pursue extramarital tail, to make sure it’s no one she knows, a pretence of giving her husband freedom whilst actually tightening her leash. It’s a reversal of Dodd’s way of keeping Freddie leashed in his therapeutic exercises.
Whereas in There Will Be Blood, an old-fashioned, hellfire religion gave counterpoint to vindictive entrepreneur triumphalism, here New Age pseudoscience takes its place as both religion and business, a fusion of the two impulses in modern American life to provide an underlying mythology for some general, free-floating emotional truths of the post-War era: that for many, reality feels false, alienated from their own emotions, stirring hunger for both assurance and also, contradictorily, for new paradigms. Dodd’s style of thought aims to fulfil both desires. “Man is not an animal,” Dodd intones, rejecting the inescapable earthiness and pragmatism of Darwinian science even whilst seeming to maintain a rationalist perspective. “We are not a part of the animal kingdom. We sit far above that crown, perched as spirits, not beasts.” Such a statement opposes the animalistic behaviour of the monkey-like sailors on the beach at the beginning, rude, crude homo sapiens unfettered. The counterculture of the ’60s is anticipated by The Movement, but tellingly without its polymorphic energy and anti-institutionalism; this is ’50s neo-religion as totalitarian Cold War manifestation even whilst offering the pretence of liberation. Dodd has the stagecraft his profession demands—most beautifully observed are his smarmy dollops of purposefully anti-pompous humour as wind-ups for his entirely pompous persona and message, delivered with self-satirising smiles—and even seems to believe in it, in his way, as when he has Freddie accompany him to unearth his second, supposedly revelatory and revolutionary second tome for The Movement, which he’s buried in the desert to keep secret until the time is right.
The inversion of the power relationship between Dodd, who presents the wise and dramatic visage of The Movement to the world, and Peggy, who plays Little League Lady Macbeth, could be trite, but Anderson, as elsewhere, refuses to give simplistic explanations. He identifies Peggy’s capacity to channel will and drive, and a seemingly sociopathic need for exclusivity and control, one who can weep with real offence when someone challenges her and her husband’s works, giving her all the reason she needs to pitch her head in Elizabethan resolve and airily ward off detractors. Her and Dodd’s relationship is a folie a deux where they mirror each other’s lacks, but this makes them capable of building a force out of unruly and facetious talent for bullshit and the ability to sell it. The Movement, seemingly prosperous, actually leeches off the prosperity of others like a spiritual gigolo, as Dodd and company set up in the house of a Midwestern duchess, Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern), and Dodd gets himself in legal trouble over the donated estate of one adherent.
The Master has some intriguing similarities to Cronenberg’s adaptation of Hampton’s A Dangerous Method (2011), about the far more effectual, but often no less happenstance and cultish world of early Freudian psychiatry, with Freddie and Dodd’s relationship echoing that of Freud and his misfired protégé, the outré Otto Gross. Perhaps the linking theme is a peculiar tendency in powerful and influential characters to seek out persons who fascinate them through peculiar, antipathetic qualities, as well as assimilate the potential of such alternate viewpoints. Peggy wants to get rid of Freddie, not just because he could embarrass them with his strange and unpredictable temperament, but precisely because he represents the threat of the unpredictable: in his pathos and neediness lies the threat of its opposite, an unruly scepticism inimical to the petty authoritarianism of cult. Indeed, as Freddie begins to emerge from the eye of his personal crisis, he begins to display just such a character: he does not so much reject The Movement as suddenly not to need it anymore.
By The Master’s final act, Freddie does seem to be healing, newly calm and centred in his physical presence, armed with an increasingly dry and mordant sense of humour, and able to face the past. He returns to speak to Doris’ mother (Lena Endre) and learns Doris is now married, and Freddie can let her go with grace and perspective. Whereas in the earlier scenes, Dodd’s therapies contrived to keep Freddie netted, a scene laced with symbolic import sees Dodd take his close kin and protégé out to White Sands and take a motorcycle across the flats to feel the exhilaration of limitless space and speed—except that Dodd prescribes unconscious limitations, versions of the walls from the earlier exercise, which Freddie thoughtlessly, gleefully ruptures, ignoring or not hearing Dodd’s calls to stop and venturing so far away that the rest of the party have to trek into the dusk to find him.
The next we see of him, he’s returned to the Solstad’s place on the other side of the country. Freddie has escaped, or least absented himself from The Movement, but Dodd is unnervingly able to locate him in a movie theatre by phone, begging him to come to England where he’s founding a chapter of The Movement. On arrival, however, Freddie is essentially given an ultimatum by Peggy to commit himself again to The Movement: “This is something you do for a billion years, or not at all.” So Freddie chooses not at all, but not without a tear. Dodd’s final show of almost unctuous, discomforting vulnerability and neediness, as he sings “I’d like to get you on a slow boat to China” to Freddie, while ensconced behind a massive desk before a grandiose window that bespeaks the oncoming rise of The Movement to a new level of institutional import. Meanwhile Freddie, like Anderson, has evolved a way of summing up truths in laconic and impudent gags; when The Movement’s British receptionist asks Freddie if he’s been travelling, he answers “How else do you get somewhere?”
Freddie finally gets at least one thing he’s been after, picking up an English nurse, with both a deliberately anticlimactic joke in the suggestion that all he really needed was to get laid, but also that his journey to the point where he could was a complex and maddening one. Freddie reveals he’s learnt a thing or two from The Master, as he walks the lady through some of the exercises Dodd put him through, except Freddie is being satiric and self-aware, mocking Dodd’s method of power and seduction whilst also using them. “If you figure out a way to live without a master,” Dodd implores Freddie, “any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.” It seems like an urgent request coming from Dodd’s mouth, though it’s really another of his self-enclosed sophistries. Freddie is not born to be either another master or a follower; he’s something else again, even if it’s just a wanderer.