The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
– Emma Keaveney
One cannot write about The Master without mentioning the level of expectation that has come to surround and inform Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. Here is a film which threw the Venice Film Festival jury into disarray – festival rules dictating that a film may win only one of the festival’s top prizes. Apparently, The Master was too good for the Golden Lion. Inordinate levels of anticipation and praise aside, it is quite clear that, in The Master, Hollywood’s wunderkind du jour has made an exceptional film, one which deserves to sit on any “best of year” list.
Like There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s other pulsating allegory of American discovery and interiority, The Master features a student/teacher, father/son dynamic at its heart. Lancaster Dodd, played with predictable aplomb by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is a quack cult leader with delusions of genius and cultural relevance. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is his wayward subject, an unpredictable presence who projects volatility and vulnerability in equal measure.
Conjectures surrounding the “meaning” of the film are many and varied. Comparisons with the true story of the cult of Scientology come most immediately to mind. Others have pointed out the duality at the centre of the film—that of the master and student—as a duality within all of us, our primal desires fighting with our societal duties. Freddie and Lancaster are the id and the ego given flesh and blood. Anderson delights in this duality with split screens and twinning, used most memorably when Lancaster and Freddie are locked in a jail cell after a brawl. Freddie thrashes with masochistic physicality while, in a neighbouring cell, Lancaster repeatedly intones: “Nobody likes you but me.”
Or perhaps The Master is really about a young man who longs to feel a connection with another human being, however transitory and ultimately painful that shared connection proves to be. The film is bookended by scenes of carefree happiness in which Freddie enjoys the intimacy and indulgence of skin on skin contact—or skin on (anthropomorphic) sand in the case of the opening sequence. In an alternate universe, The Master is a gross-out comedy entitled Freddie Quell Wants to Get Laid.
Criticised by many for its apparent lack of plot, The Master seems to be rather pointedly bucking against “story”, that grand old matriarch of Hollywood cinema. Narrative-as-such simply isn’t Anderson’s preoccupation here. The film suggests a hidden pre-history to America’s culture of self-help books, shopping malls and the brash falsity of individual freedom. But, I would argue that if it is “about” anything it is the mysterious twin forces of emotion and personality.
The usual cinematic reference points are useless here. Generic expectations (a biopic inspired by a newsworthy religious cult), perfect period detailing, and the Hollywood heavyweights of director and lead actors all combine to give the film the illusion of accessibility. Rather, The Master is nebulous and difficult, like a dream half-remembered in the daytime, and will be examined and dissected with an almost scientific curiosity for many years to come.
Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)
Breathing (Karl Markovicz)