Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, June 26, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Thomas Anderson (2012)


6. The Master

In 2009, Paul Thomas Anderson announced that he was working a movie inspired by Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard. The film was all ready to go at Universal, when the studio suddenly dropped the project. This was supposedly due to budgetary issues, though rumors persisted that the Church of Scientology convinced the studio to abandoned the film. Which may veer towards conspiracy theory territory but seems pretty believable, considering the shady shit the Church gets up to all the time. Eventually, the film was made by Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures, which would quickly established itself as the go-to production company for critically beloved auteurs. When “The Master” was released, most of the explicit references to Hubbard were gone. The film, however, still generated controversy, mostly thanks to its ambiguous tone.

World War II has ended but Freddie Quell is still not doing well. The former sailor is a raging alcoholic, constantly sloshed, often violent, and primarily focused on getting laid. After running from his latest job, he sneaks aboard a yacht. The boat belongs to Lanchester Dodd, the eccentric leader of a new age religious movement called the Cause. The Cause's philosophy is based around past lives, reincarnation, and confessional questioning sessions called Processing. Freddie is immediately enthralled by Dodd and soon devotes himself to the Cause. As the years goes on, Quell begins to wonder if Dodd is worth following.

Upon release, a hundred articles emerged wondering what the hell “The Master” is really about. Some saw a cloaked biography about Scientology. Others took the film as an extended study of the post-war era. There were even more far out theories, suggesting the movie is actually about acting. “The Master,” it seems to me, is about the same thing that most of Paul Thomas Anderson's films are. The story concerns a broken man, looking for acceptance, understanding, and love. As in “Boogie Nights,” the characters form an odd family. As in “Magnolia,” the protagonist's psyche is deeply shattered by trauma. As in “There Will Be Blood,” a man attempts to build walls between himself and others. “The Master” shows Anderson's continued fascination with these topics.

“The Master” can be especially connected with “Magnolia.” In that film, broken people self-medicated with cocaine and drugs. Freddie Quell doesn't snort or dose but does consume massive amounts of alcohol. Throughout nearly the entire film, Freddie is entirely intoxicated. His alcoholism has reached such depths, that he's actually drinking paint thinner and rocket fuel. Like many war vets in the forties and fifties, Quell can't process his emotional trauma in any other way. He's part of an age where men where tough, never speaking about their feelings. So, instead, they drank and drank. This is the generation of my grandfathers, men similarly traumatized by the war who drowned their troubles in booze. Freddie is just an especially extreme example of this, a man completely consumed by his vices.

Freddie Quell is played by Joaquin Phoenix, an intense actor well suited to Anderson's intense films. Phoenix is very convincing at conveying Quell's alcoholism. He embodies the character's perpetually sloshed status, adding slurred speech, fidgety body language, and ricocheting moods. An uncontrollable rage is Freddie's other defining characteristic. Phoenix's violent fury is frighteningly sudden and frequently unprovoked. Such as when he antagonizes a customer at his job as a photographer, for seemingly no reason. Or when he destroys a commode in a jail cell. Quell has been repressing his emotions for so long that, when they boil over, he explodes. Like a way more violent version of “Punch-Drunk Love's” Barry Egan.

Freddie is also obsessed with sex. In an early scene, some fellow seaman sculpt a naked woman out of sand. They were kidding but Freddie gets a little too enthusiastic expressing his appreciation for the sand-girl. Later, he awkwardly attempts to hook up with a female co-worker, nearly succeeding. After joining the Cause, he outright asks a female crew member if she “wants to fuck.” An elaborate scene has Freddie imagining every woman in the room naked. Yet this is another way Freddie is hiding his true feelings. As much of a horn dog as he is, Freddie actually yearns for a lost love. He's haunting by memories of Doris, the teenage girl he romanced before going out to sea. With this story turn, “The Master” further reveals itself as a story about a vulnerable man doing everything he can to hide his true feelings.

“The Master” was formed from a number of ideas Anderson had lying around. Some scenes were left over from “There Will Be Blood.” Other moments were inspired by war-time drinking stories Jason Robards told Anderson on the set of “Magnolia.” The life story of John Steinbeck informed the film. But, primarily, yes, “The Master” was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. Like Scientology, members of the Cause sign billion year contracts. Like Scientology, the Cause is based around people improving themselves through odd rituals based in far-out ideas. Instead of ridding the body of “thetans,” the members of the Cause rid themselves of past trauma through hypnosis sessions that explore their past lives. There's an even more explicit connection. The Cause's Processing is the same thing as Scientology's Auditing. Members confess their dark secrets on tape, which the organization can later use to blackmail them. Through these ideas, “The Master” displays how cults makes members rely on them.

Despite being about a cult, “The Master,” strangely doesn't concern itself much with the mumbo-jumbo Dodd builds his Cause upon. There are only two or so scenes devoted to explaining the connection between past lives and current trauma. Weirdly, Freddie never expresses an actual opinion about Dodd's teachings. His past lives are never explored, he's only hypnotized once, and only partially. Instead of being devoted to Dodd, the new age prophet, Freddie is devoted to Dodd, the man. The two bound over alcohol, joking around with each other. The two yell and scream at each other but ultimately forgive one another. In the end, Dodd requests Freddie's presence and is rejected, a turnabout of what you might expect. Some have characterized “The Master” as a love story between Freddie and Dodd. They're not wrong. Dodd is the only person who forgives Freddie and Freddie, in turn, is the only person who sees Lanchester as a human being.

By now, long unbroken takes are just as much a Paul Thomas Anderson trademark as long tracking shots. The director employs both throughout “The Master.” One stand-out shot shows Freddie's sneaking onto Dodd's boat. In one smooth sequence, he walks down the street, leaps off the pier, and boards the yacht. Yet movement leads to stillness. One of the most noteworthy sequences in “The Master” is devoted to Freddie's Processing. At the beginning of the Processing, Dodd tells Freddie not to blink. Similarly, Anderson's camera doesn't look away, focusing on Phoenix's face as he reveals his darkest secrets. Anderson's visual construction informs the film's themes.

Anderson's scenes of motion and calm increasingly occur inside an extra-wide canvas. “The Master” was shot in 65mm and was shown in 70mm in select heaters., a factoid that receive much press before the film's release. Anderson builds upon the epic visual presentation of “There Will Be Blood” to tell an even more personal story. The wide shots draw attention to how small Quell seems in his world. A reoccurring sequence shows the very blue, blue waters float by as he lays, drunk, on a battleship. As Freddie speeds away from the cult on a motorcycle, he disappears into an ever-widening horizon. In the various close-ups, the cast's faces become landscapes onto themselves.

“The Master” is really built around three performances. I've already talked about how Joaquin Phoenix plums the depths of the human soul, playing a character that is deeply traumatized. How about Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lanchester Dodd? Hoffman plays Dodd as a fully formed human being. When delivering rambling speeches, about comparing marriage to a dragon, he seems to be a stately voice of authority. In more private moments with Freddie, he comes off as chummy, relaxed. However, Dodd also has cases of explosive rage. Most famously, when arguing with a skeptic, Dodd's incoherent defenses eventually degrade into shouts of “pig fuck!” While arguing with Freddie, Dodd also gets vulgar. Hoffman runs the gamut of human behavior, painting Dodd as a complicated, layered man.

The Cause may technically be Lanchester Dodd's creation but, as the film goes on, it seems more and more like his wife is actually running things. As Peggy Dodd, Amy Adams is steely. She is always in control. Her body language is contained and disciplined, programmed to illicit a specific reaction. The control Peggy wields over her husband is displayed during a very memorable moment, where she gives him a very peculiar hand job. Later, Peggy reads Freddie pornography, as a way to break down his resistance. All the while, Adams' performance is perfectly calculated. It seems like she never blinks, she's so totally in control of herself.

“The Master” is a beguiling motion picture. It is built on powerful performances. In some ways, the film is less ambitious than “Magnolia,” as it doesn't asks questions about the universe. It doesn't have spellbinding a main character as “There Will Be Blood.” However, it does perfectly capture a time and place, like “Boogie Nights,” and does tango with some big issues. The film is ultimately not as satisfying as Anderson's other films while still being as brilliantly constructed. A more straight forward biography of L. Ron Hubbard perhaps would've answered more questions. But what we got instead was also pretty cool. [Grade: B+]

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