Paul Thomas Anderson’s film The Master, released in theatres widely today, has already made a considerable splash, garnering both praise and puzzlement. The film earned two top prizes at the Venice Film Festival, including for best director, and has set art-house box-office records in limited release in Los Angeles and New York.
Those ticket sales reflect the strength of pent-up audience demand for the first film in five years from Anderson, the much-admired director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. While reviews have been generally positive, there have been some prominent dissenters. “There Will be Dud” reads the headline in David Thompson’s review in The New Republic. Time magazine critic Richard Schikel ranks The Master as “between a disappointment and a disaster” and suggests that other critics’ investment in the cult of P.T. Anderson’s career has blinded them to the movie’s faults.
Should we be skeptical of that skepticism? Anderson has never been everyone’s favourite. Even There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s most commercially successful film – which earned eight Oscar nominations including wins for cinematography and best actor for Daniel Day Lewis – didn’t crack $50-million at the North America box office. Like Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Anderson’s latest is enigmatic. But if you have eyes and can see, The Master it is unmistakably some kind of wonder. At least, it’s an exhilarating demonstration of big-screen moviemaking in dreamlike colours and a sense-heightening 70-mm format. Beyond that, the two lead actors, Joaquin Phoenix as the primitive acolyte and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the decadent teacher, play their roles with such idiosyncratic energy, that they suggest duelling Brandos.
More than that, there’s Anderson’s obvious authorial maturity. The wunderkind who started off his career combining stories of naive sincerity with dazzling demonstrations of cinematic theft (of David Mamet’s terse dialogue in Hard Eight, Martin Scorsese’s swooping camera in Boogie Nights, Robert Altman’s multi-strand ensemble style in Magnolia ) and has settled in for the same Kubrickian monumentality that characterized There Will Be Blood. Also similarly, it’s a film about the forces that shape modern America.
The astonishingly kinetic first 20 minutes introduce us to the unbalanced world of Freddie Quell. Phoenix, with his hair slicked back in a pompadour, looks a little like Montgomery Clift with a leering grin, hunched shoulders and limbs that might flail in any direction. Freddie gets drunk on torpedo engine fuel, grinds atop a sand mound shaped like a naked woman on the beach (a From Here to Eternity quote?) and masturbates into the ocean. Upon being discharged from the army, he’s diagnosed with a nervous disorder but, after brief treatment, pops up again at a fancy department store as the in-house photographer.
His respectability is short-lived: After seducing a model, he loses his temper with a well-heeled, middle-aged male customer, resulting in an alarming slapstick melee that leaves the customers shocked and Freddie on the run.
In his next job, chopping cabbages in California, he kills one of his co-workers with his homemade hootch and hightails it to San Francisco. Drunk, he sneaks aboard an elegant party yacht at night, which is lit like an enchanted floating lantern. (Romanian cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. worked on Frances Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth, Tetro and Twixt ). The beautiful ship slips under the Golden Gate Bridge, bound for New York by way of Panama, and in the morning, the hungover Freddie has a new friend.
The plump, courtly stranger is named Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), and he might have stepped out of a latter-day version of Huckleberry Finn: with his pompous introduction: “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man – just like you.”
At which point, you imagine, Freddie should have taken a plunge straight into the deep blue sea, but having nothing else in his life, he hangs around, and the film becomes a subtle immersion into a kind of invented family (like the porn industry gang in Boogie Nights). Dodd is the founder of a movement, The Cause, a philosophy of past-life therapy in which subjects engage in “time mining” to learn about their previous existences and traumas which they must overcome. Dodd’s ship is on a wedding cruise for his daughter, Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) and son-in-law Clark (Rami Malek) along with his wife and steely lieutenant Peggy (Amy Adams), son Val (Jesse Plemons) and other leaders of the movement. Following Dodd’s writings, they’re convinced The Cause can end war, poverty and cancer en route to human perfectibility in about a trillion years or so.
The Master and the misfit talk, and here’s where the film becomes not just visually mesmerizing experience but a mentally compelling one as well. Dodd’s intimate interviews, charged with homoerotic suggestion, are shot with unforgiving close-ups amid rapid-fire interrogations that mix mundane and startling questions: “Do you linger at bus stations for pleasure?” “Do your past failures bother you?” “Have you ever had sex with a family member?”
Freddie snickers and farts. “Silly animal,” says Dodd with fond patience. Then something emotionally breaks in Freddie as well. He wants more sessions, more questions, until he begins to talk about a painful interlude with a teenaged girl he left behind years ago.
The action moves to a mansion in New York, where Dodd , backed by a wealthy patron and disciple (Laura Dern), continues his experiment. But Peggy is growing increasingly concerned about Freddie’s unhealthy influence on her husband. In the film’s most surreal scenes, an inebriated Dodd performs a musical number at a party, where the women guests suddenly appear naked. Is it one Freddie’s lewd hallucinations? Apparently not: In the next scene, Mary Sue takes her husband to task with a deft bit of sexual shaming.
Freddie, though animalistic as ever, has becomes Dodd’s true believer, ready to beat anyone who questions The Master’s dictums. When Dodd’s son Val breezily tells him, “He’s making all this up as he goes along,” Freddie flies into a rage, assaults some policemen and ends up in a jail cell.
In the film’s second half, The Master’s gears begin to grind – we’re locked into Freddie’s increasing frustration as he’s put through spirit-breaking exercises of walking from wall to wall with his eyes closed. Here’s the point where non-believers will say that Anderson has lost his way, and that the characters are locked in fixed orbit, unable to progress.
Unless, of course, disappointment, frustration and replication are what the film are about. Dodd frequently alludes to having known Freddie in a past life, suggesting that this power dynamic (the master and the servant, the huckster and the shill) is eternally recurrent, but in new forms. The arch-capitalist Daniel Plainview and huckster preacher Eli Sunday are here rolled into one for the hard-sell optimism of the post-war era: The prophet is all about profit.
Anderson, who once cast himself a autobiographical director, is now a consciously American one, building a legacy on a foundation of film history. His exploration of the convergence of faith and fraudulence evokes everything from Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man to the last Wall Street market crash. An overhead shot of the yacht cutting through the water, which serves as the signature image of the film, echoes with the final sentence of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
A short history of cult cinema
It’s a nice touch that the methodology of the cult leader in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie The Master is to ask his new initiates to answer a series of questions without blinking. The suggestion is that this technique will help the recruits to focus, but it seems more like a variation on the attention-fixation tricks favoured by stage mesmerizers: an exercise in vision staged with eyes wide shut.
With its central dynamic between stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, and pointed references to the life and times of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, The Master instantly joins the canon of movies about cults – a large and diverse sub-genre whose best entrants often inspire the same sort of slavish devotion in their fans as the influence peddlers whose adventures they describe.
In the last year, two acclaimed American indie films, Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Sound of My Voice, have featured quasi-religious figureheads tending to their anxious flocks, and critics have invoked the likes of Elmer Gantry and A Face in the Crowd – enduring portraits of populist demagogues. But a better point of comparison for Anderson’s deeply weird drama might be The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962), a cult movie that is also a “cult movie” – an underground classic that, by featuring a single man as its writer, director and star, is also in the same league as Citizen Kane (Orson Welles being a crucial point of reference for Hoffman’s performance in Anderson’s film).
Sinner is the work of Timothy Carey, a character actor whose collaborators over his career included Stanley Kubrick and Frank Zappa, and whose face showed up on the cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. His performance as insurance-salesman-turned-rock-star-turned-self-described “God” Clarence Hilliard is as twitchy and unhinged as Phoenix’s, with the added benefit that Carey is playing master and apprentice in the same body. The film is about a man whose ability to convince others that they are en route to becoming “superhuman beings” is outstripped by his ability to entrance himself.
If The Master adroitly sidesteps most of the cliches of cult movies – its protagonist doesn’t have his spirit broken, not does he heroically resist – it still seems in thrall somehow to Carey’s demented anti-masterpiece, a movie you really can’t take your eyes off of.