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Non-Review Review: The Master

The Master is a boldly ambitious picture, if one that’s occasionally difficult to parse. Is it a character study of the two leads, the broken Freddie and dysfunctional Lancaster Dodd? Is it a commentary on the sudden material success and spiritual emptiness of fifties America, in the wake of the Second World War? Is it a study of the phenomenon and psychology of “cult”, with one particular cult in mind? The Master is all these, and probably a great deal more, and its only real flaw is that it never manages to truly fashion these multiple compelling facets into one fully realised whole. Still, that’s a comparatively minor complaint, when dealing with a movie produced with this level of technical craft.

All at sea…

The Master feels, in many ways, like a spiritual companion to Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood. It goes beyond the confident and lingering cinematography, the beautiful vistas and the exploration of a period of American history steeped in nostalgia. Like There Will Be BloodThe Master is the story of the ideological conflict between two very different men. The only difference is that the conflict in The Master only really becomes apparent towards the movie’s final act. Indeed, The Master even has a coda that feels quite similar to that of There Will Be Blood, featuring one potentially final interaction between the leads, separated by quite some time from the events that came before.

You could argue that the themes are somewhat familiar. Both are about the American national identity, and the formation of a particular aspect of the popular psyche, formed at a crucial moment in the nation’s history. There Will Be Blood followed the greed and thirst for oil that would form the basis of scandals like “Teapot Dome” and arguably continues into the twenty-first century. The Masterlingers on the sense of listlessness that took root in the wake of the Second World War, an era of economic prosperity that brought considerable social uncertainty and insecurity.

Master of all he surveys…

You could argue that Anderson’s Boogie Nights rounds out this trilogy exploring the American psyche, with its own observations about the economy of pornography during the seventies and eighties. However, The Master feels like it merits discussion on its own terms, even if there’s considerable thematic overlap with the rest of Anderson’s work. It’s a powerful and stately film, one which isn’t afraid to dwell on a moment or a scene or even a particularly pretty image captured beautifully by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr.

The Master is set during the fifties, and it finds an American caught at something of a crossroads. The charismatic Lancaster Dodd has built a cult around remembering past lives, while in his interview with an army psychiatrist Freddie refers to “what you people call nostalgia.” However, that desire to look backwards is tempered by the limitless potential that the future must offer, and Dodd finds himself torn between the two options. Can you look backwards and forwards at the same time?

Freddie looks like he’s about to snap…

At one point, Dodd drives out into the middle of the desert with a motorbike and explains the rules of his “new game” to the three followers present. “It’s called Pick a Point,” he tells them. “You pick a point and you drive to it as fast as you possible can.” What better metaphor could there be for the American Dream, which must have seemed more real than ever during the economic boom of the fifties? You can understand why Dodd is caught between nostalgia and aspiration, struggling to choose whether his central tenant should be “can you recall…?” or “can you imagine…?”

It follows veteran Freddie Quell, a drunkard who drifts through life in the wake of his discharge from the army. Quell roams relatively freely, with nothing to anchor him or tie him down. It’s a while before he stumbles across “the master”Lancaster Dodd, and we get a sense of just how transient he is. Completely dependent on alcohol to the point where he’s barely functional, he’s a slave to his most primal urges. Asked to examine a Rorschach test, the imagine is always a sexual organ. Sometimes upside down.

The army also used to Freddie to test some Dark Knight Rises marketing images…

“Do you have a break?” he asks a female staff-member, the closest he comes to romantic courtship. He does offer to take her to dinner, but we’re shown that it’s a less than spirited affair. As long as he has space and raw materials (including paint thinner) to mix his hooch, he’s content. He only moves on from each job after he self-sabotages. He harasses a patron, or he nearly accidentally kills a fellow employee with his home brew. It seems that Freddie’s presence is practically toxic.

A lot of this seems to be carried over from his service in the navy during the war, it seems like he has returned a changed man, to a society that doesn’t quite understand him. Flashbacks to his time before service, and his honest confessions about an early love, suggest that Freddie is practically unrecognisable. Despite his service to his country, the army is fairly indifferent to his stress and his dependencies. The best they can offer is some idle reassurance. “There are people on the outside who will not understand the condition that you men have.” They suggest that he start up a grocery store or a hardware shop.

Picture perfect…

There are signs that things are changing. Freddie’s most glamorous job sees the character working in a shop that is clearly a not-too-distant ancestor of the modern shopping mall, a consumerist paradise where women are even implied to walk around as moving coat hangers, flashing a smile and offering the price-tag of that fine minx coat they wear. Freddie moves further down the foodchain, but there’s still the sense of an expanding economy out there – Freddie works on the farmyard equivalent of an assembly line. He first glimpses the charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd on the glitzy deck of a cruise ship.

“Do you feel envy?” Lancaster asks Freddie during his ‘processing’, a sequence of rapid-fire personal questions that will seem familiar to anybody who knows how cults operate. Freddie seems to be driven by some measure of resentment of those who have. Invited into a posh house by Dodd, Freddie still makes sure to line his coat pockets with trinkets and baubles, despite the fact that everything he could possible need is provided for.

Just deserts…

That’s not to suggest that Dodd himself isn’t driven by some measure of thirst or desire. He is arrested for embezzlement at one point, and it’s implied that his good-natured association with Freddie is rooted in some desire to ‘dominate’ or to ‘own’ the misguided young man. Early in the film, he talks about wrestling a dragon with a lasso, which he turns into a lead. The image is less than subtle, but he seems to take great pride in his control of others. While he might help Freddie stumble upon some deep personal secrets, he still seems to derive great pleasure in making his follower pace a room from one side to the other for hours on end.

The Master is set during a period of economic prosperity, and it’s full of characters manipulating others for their own ends. Freddie’s wants are the most primal – he passes a note around (“do you want to $%#!?”) while listening to Dodd lecture on how humanity must be above the “animal kingdom.”However, other characters are just as simplistic in their own desires and ambitions. They just conceal them behind a mask of civility.

Drinking it in…

Dodd’s wife, portrayed by Amy Adams, wants power through her husband, suggesting that the organisation must adopt a policy of “attack” against its adversaries. (Dodd seems less convinced, although just as insecure – he hopes to earn power and respect through manipulation rather than intimidation.) His daughter makes it clear what she wants from Freddie. His son seems to enjoy the power his position brings, without even believing what his father says. “He’s making all this up as he goes along,” the son tells Freddie. “You don’t see that?”

We get an idea of what Dodd seems to expect from Freddie in his son-in-law. Dark-haired and tanned, the son-in-law seems relatively easy to manipulate by anybody in the family – during the scenes where he voices any opinion, it seems quite clear he’s been coached, his words are rehearsed and staged. He’s even dragged around, unwittingly, by Freddie himself. Dodd refers to Freddie repeatedly as a “filthy animal” or his “little soldier.” He treats Freddie as if he were a favoured pet. “Don’t hurt him!”he yells at the police as Freddie resists arrest.

A cult figure, indeed…

Joaquin Phoenix is simply amazing as Freddie. He plays the drunk remarkably well – to the point where it’s difficult to understand precisely what’s saying, while keeping the intent and meaning perfectly clear. He does this wonderful thing with his posture where he walks like a misshapen man, looking distinctly uncomfortable in a suit like a trained circus animal. Freddie is a fascinating creation, and he’s brought to life simply fantastically. Phoenix might offer one of the best leading performances of the year so far. (Only Michael Fassbender in Shame comes close to it.)

Philip Seymour Hoffman is great as Lancaster Dodd, playing a character who very clearly gets off on intellectual domination – the mind’s power over the body. Dodd is a very transparently fictionalised version of L. Ron Hubbard, just as “the Cause” has more than a few similarities to Scientology. ‘Processing’ seems remarkably similar to ‘auditing.’ Although the movie doesn’t dwell on it, Dodd seems to propose an alternate history of the world that defies the scientific explanations – involving aliens and eternally suffering reincarnated souls – that seems quite familiar. His wife proposes a practise that seems quite similar to “fair game”, the Church of Scientology’s infamously over-zealous persecution of potential adversaries.

A Dodd-gy character?

The movie’s actually fairly even-handed when it comes to Dodd. He is portrayed as an embezzler and as confidence man, but the movie suggests that he people around him are responsible for the cult’s more aggressive actions. It doesn’t let him off the hook – he’s still very clearly driven by ego and still offers a quack cure for “certain forms” of leukaemia. However, the movie makes it clear that he’s a charismatic individual with his own insecurities and weaknesses, and refrains from characterising him in the same explicitly cynical light as those around him. It’s balanced – it’s not so soft a portrayal that he gets off lightly, but it’s not so heavy-handed he becomes a shallow caricature.

The film struggles a bit to tie everything entire together, but there’s no shortage of ambition on display. It’s hard not to appreciate the skill that Anderson and his production team demonstrate in putting a film like this together, and The Master is truly daunting in scope. It does justice to most of its separate strands, but I’m not sure that they all weave together as fluidly as they should. Still, it’s a powerful and impressive piece of cinema, and one well worth a look.

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5 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Mikey's marvellous medicine! and commented:
    Interesting point about Phoenix challenging Fassbender for best lead of the year. I wrote a blog piece about Fassbender not too long ago. I wonder what they’d be like in a film together. An enticing prospect!

  2. Interesting point about Phoenix challenging Fassbender for best lead of the year. I wrote a blog piece about Fassbender not too long ago. I wonder what they’d be like in a film together. An enticing prospect!

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