The Master & Other Things That Make Middle America Uncomfortable

28 Sep

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master.

After reading various inadequate reviews of PT Anderson’s The Master, my urge to comment on what I believe is one of the most subtly brilliant films of the year is more pressing than ever.  When I saw the film last night, several people in the theater proclaimed that The Master was in fact “the worst movie” they had ever seen.  Let us keep in mind that I saw this film at a Cinemark chain theater in suburban Colorado Springs. When I saw PT Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, it was in a room full of aspiring filmmakers and writers at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.  These are extremely different environments for watching film, and I suppose my privilege is showing when I say that watching a film at NYU’s premiere arts school is much preferred over sharing a room with baby boomers whose biggest concern is living long enough to be able to collect their Social Security benefits.  My mother, bless her sweet soul, said she “should have seen the new Viola Davis movie about the teachers.” Sorry mother, but not every movie is about feeling good, nor should it be.

The Master opens with a stunning shot of an ocean’s blue-white tide, stirred by the engines of a World War II naval ship, the USS Missouri.  Freddie Quell, an emaciated, decidedly creepy-looking Joaquin Phoenix, is aboard the ship, at one point laying in a crooked Christ-like repose on the bow. Quell, we learn right away, is a severe alcoholic and a sexual deviant of sorts. In one of the opening scenes, Quell climbs atop a nude woman molded from the sands of whatever Pacific beach he and his fellow seamen camp out on, thrusting excitedly, much too excitedly for the amusement of his peers.

When Quell gets discharged from the Navy as the war ends, his mental state is evaluated by a Naval officer.  The officer shows Quell a series of Rorschach ink blots, with Quell’s descriptive answers consisting of “a pussy, a cock going into a pussy,” and a “cock upside down”. Something is wrong with this guy. Perhaps we should already know that, considering he drained the chemicals out of a warhead to get drunk.

When Quell returns to civilian life, he gets a shit job as a photographer in a department store, forced to experience the happiness of others through a lens. One day, he loses it, and gets in a fight with a male customer who says the picture is for his wife.  Quell, perhaps feeling tinges of jealousy due to his lack of real intimacy with a woman, attacks the man and runs away, embarking on a journey that will bring him to the mercy of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of The Cause. Stumbling onto a party yacht carrying Dodd and his family on the eve of the wedding of his young daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), Quell imbibes amongst the group until he blacks out, not recalling that he inquired of Lancaster whether any work was available.  What happens next is the beginning of an odd tale of love and commitment, acted out between two very different men.  Dodd, subjecting Freddie to his introductory methods of questioning known as Processing, asks Quell a series of questions, often repeating them until he elicits the response he wants. It is at this point that we learn some deep dark secrets about Quell, although they are not exactly shocking.

It should be remarked that at this time in the film, it is 1950.  The way that year is repeated throughout the film by various characters, though especially by Dodd and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams). 1950 is a hallmark year in movements for self-improvement.  In 1950, L. Ron Hubbard published his work Dianetics, which would lead to the establishment of Scientology as a formal religious movement. The parallels between Dodd and Hubbard are not glaringly obvious, and although The Master is called “PT Anderson’s Scientology film,” the movie does not insult Scientology nor make any overt comments on it.  However, Dodd and Hubbard can both be seen as charismatic, elusive individuals. As the film unfolds, we see Dodd questioned by several supporting characters, perhaps mirroring Hubbard’s experience as being deemed a charlatan in his formative years.  Hubbard, initially a writer of serial pulp fiction articles, was once quoted as saying, “writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.”

Dodd, perhaps taking a page from Hubbard, promotes The Cause as a method of self-improvement for man, a way of separating oneself from animals.  Dodd refers to Quell as an animal at several points in the film, further indicating the connection of Phoenix’s character as an id. Dodd, quite naturally, acts as the super-ego attempting to control the wild Quell.

Another interesting item of note is PT Anderson’s choice of casting redheads in the three main female roles – Adams, Childers, and Madisen Beaty, playing Doris, the inappropriately-aged love interest of Phoenix – are all pale redheads. However, in spite of the presence of these women, the real love story is between Freddie and Dodd. Both men form a dependence on one another, although the connection seems stronger for Dodd.

The Master is a veritable example of acting at its best and its worst. Not only do I feel Joaquin Phoenix deserves one of those little gold men we call Oscar, but I also feel it’s clear that his performance in The Master is one almost specially crafted for that express purpose. There is always something irritating about those films that arrive every fall and feature period costumes and people staring intensely at one another; almost in an attempt to make staring a requirement for winning acting awards.

The deep symbolism of The Master is too much to comment on in its entirety, but it is important to note that many critics do not adequately explore the symbolic and metaphoric meaning behind films today. Instead, they often pander to audiences who may find films completely enigmatic.  One critic, Lisa Kennedy  of The Denver Post, actually wrote in her review ‘Why are these women naked, you may find yourself asking.” Really? Are people asking this or do critics simply not give enough credit to filmgoers today? The scene Ms. Kennedy references has Quell envisioning the women at a party scene entirely naked, including Amy Adams, the pregnant wife of Lancaster Dodd.  This scene further solidifies Quell’s unshakeable status as representative of the id which Dodd so greatly despises. Quell, ever the animal, views this party as little more than an opportunity to get laid.

Perhaps the most-asked question about The Master is whether or not the film is about Scientology. Yes, and no. The many hints made by Seymour’s character toward a cult-like religion birthed from a book are quite enough, but they never cross the line into specificity.  To continue discussing the finer points of PT Anderson’s The Master would be a pointless exercise. Anyone who can find the motive to see the film in the first place is likely inclined toward dramatic, complicated films. However, if you find yourself walking out of the theater while saying “This is the worst movie I have ever seen!”, Dredd 3D will likely be playing a few screens down.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: