(I’m really, really late to the game on this one, but I’ve been digesting this movie for months, and waited to watch it a second time before writing. And then waited some more. And some more. So here are my thoughts, way too late for anyone to care.)
The Master is fascinating, unnerving, beguiling and unforgettable. It’s also distressing, irritating, oblique and strange. It’s one of the best films of last year, and yet in the final tally haunted by its own failings. There’s an enigma at the film’s center, and, I suspect, two crucial scenes edited out of the final cut.
The movie follows an outcast ex-sailor, Freddy Quell, haunting the early post-war years in 1950s America. His peregrinations carry him from department store photographer to day-laboring farmer. He eventually falls under the sway of an emerging cult leader, Lancaster Dodd. The bulk of the film follows Quell and Dodd as they collide, attract and repel each other. Quell becomes a test case for Dodd, and the efficacy of his methods. Dodd puts Quell through the sometimes silly, sometimes grueling “processing,” of his cult, while expanding his organization against social and legal resistance.
There’s a Freudian subtext permeating the movie, an undercurrent of sexual repulsion and attraction. Throughout Quell holds a kind of animal attraction to the other characters. He’s visually represented by the re-occurring shots of the sea (just as Daniel Plainview’s inner rot in There Will Be Blood is mirrored by the scorched earth and the black tar; Barry Egan’s odd, cosmic innocence in Punch Drunk Love is reflected by prisms of beautiful light, his whimsy by the child’s harpsichord; and the de-personalized sex of the 1970s porn industry in Boogie Nights is grounded in the gears of the moving cameras.) But the image of the sea poses one of the first problems of the picture. What does it say about Quell? Is it his unpredictability, or his immense sexual energy, or the fact that he isn’t a fixed thing, that he has no center? Is he a force of nature or a formless mass? This question is never quite answered—he sort of vacillates between the two—and the film suffers for it.
Quell at work on his infernal homemade liquor.
The film might operate as an existential parable, but Quell is too disturbed to be a stand-in for everyman. His condition is so singular that the movie doesn’t operate with archetypes, not really. So the missing scene—the thing that haunts the movie, as far as I’m concerned, gives it much of its power but also interferes with our understanding of it—gets more and more conspicuous in its absence. It’s gnawing at me. I keep replaying the movie in my mind, looking for clues. (This kind of thing can pay immense dividends; Robert Altman’s Nashville has a major puzzle to it, but there’s an answer if you watch it enough times. Ditto for Mulholland Drive, Taxi Driver, Vertigo, and half a dozen other films.) But The Master resists such interrogation.
The easy read of the movie is to set up Quell as a foil for, and reflection of, Dodd, the charismatic cult leader who controls the people around him but is shackled by his own wild and fabulist claims. Dodd believes in his powers but knows, at least as Hoffman plays him, that the cosmology he’s inventing cannot be true. Yet he must believe it to keep his followers in line. So he’s a prisoner of his own inventions, like some fiction writer kidnapped by his own creations. Just as Quell is a prisoner of his own animalistic urges. With this interpretation, Dodd understands his plight but can do nothing to alter it, while Quell controls nothing in his life, including his own emotions.
Okay, fine, but too tidy and neat; this doppelganger approach can only go so far. For it is how Dodd and Quell are different that makes the movie interesting. Dodd keeps his dark thoughts hidden; Quell overflows with animus and vitriol and shame. They aren’t flipsides of the same coin either. Quell is a sex-obsessed thief, a drunken soldier, a tormented alcoholic with a tiny inner life. His thoughts are his actions, and what he keeps inside seems to be only pain. Dodd is a fabulist, a liar who sees the needs of others and tries to bend their needs to his own purposes. Dodd doesn’t want to be the miserable Quell. Who would? And Quell doesn’t want to be Dodd, hemmed in by the beliefs of his followers.
The closest film to The Master I can think of, and this will strike some as strange, is Lawrence of Arabia. Both are long, careful character studies of deranged minds. Lawrence is sexually confused, violent, sadistic and sociopathic; if you watch the film carefully, you’ll see that most of his emotions are mimicry. He attempts to display the emotions that the other characters are expecting. Lawrence doesn’t understand himself, nor does he fully understand the world. He wishes to be an Arab, but he can’t help but be British. He’s at conflict with himself, and he can’t sublimate his schizoid tendencies.
Freddy Quell is a similar character, only more unhinged (through the constant imbibing of toxic, homemade liquor). He’s incapable of keeping a regular job. Like Lawrence, he’s physically weak, yet somehow strong. He’s motivated by some deep-rooted self-destructive urge. He doesn’t understand himself or the world, floating through post-war society like a child drifting on a not so gentle tide. Like Lawrence, Quell uses violence as a way to communicate, and understand, his own desires.
Hell, Phoenix even kind of looks like O’Toole’s Lawrence, angular, distorted, face in a grimace.
O’Toole as a murderous, half-crazy freak, remembered as a war hero.
Phoenix looking haunted, haggard, and sort of like O’Toole, right?
Both films are gorgeous. Both films are crowded at the edges with plot that seems important, but isn’t fully fleshed out. (In Lawrence, the plot is the historical forces at work in Palestine. Here it’s the formation and extension of Scientology. In both the plot is a backdrop to warp, extend, and disturb the main character. The plot acts on and against both characters, as opposed to the other way around.) Arabia obsesses over the punishing beauty of the desert. Master returns over and over to the foamy, sexually charged imagery of the ocean. Both are slow, plodding, meticulous and challenging. Both slow down the viewing sensations, while maintaining inner tension within the characters that translates into discomfort for the audience.
And both films are, in essence, about repressed homosexuality. If you’ve only seen some of Lawrence of Arabia, or if you’ve only read about it, you won’t know what I’m speaking of, but there’s a scene near the end where Lawrence is captured. He’s stripped. His captors mock his pale skin and then pierce his nipples with stabbing knives. (It’s supremely disturbing.) Off-screen, the movie implies he’s raped, subjected to sexual humiliation, tortured in unspeakable ways. The movie also implies that he might enjoy being punished. He never recovers.
The Master has its hidden scenes, too. The first shot of the movie is Quell’s half-concealed face, on what appears to be a few minutes before one of the major Pacific Theatre battles. We never see the battle, or the horrors Quell witnesses.
The two movies draw from the exact same thematic well: sex, war, nature. Masochism, sadism, control. Lawrence ends with T.E. Lawrence’s face hidden in shadow. Master begins with Quell’s helmeted face hunkered down in a ship. Both films appear to scrutinize and observe, but elide as much as they reveal. Both films are about men of war trying to find peace.
The infuriating thing about the professional criticism The Master is that so many learned reviewers missed the central issue in the movie. Critics who see father-son relations are missing the subtext. They watched a different movie.
And the missing scene—if I’m right—is a love scene between Dodd and Quell.
Anderson is superb screenwriter. He collaborates with his actors, but doesn’t to my knowledge collaborate with other writers. So his movies often feel in dialogue with each other—he’s built a body of work, like a novelist or composer. The most obvious example of this ongoing dialogue between his films is Magnolia’s operatic largeness in contrast to the compact, short, internalized Punch Drunk Love. The Master feels like an extension of Blood, but it really isn’t. Dodd isn’t Plainview, and neither is Quell. Plainview is bitter, driven, obsessed with money, a man with no past only future, asexual and bitterly aware of his own terrifying flaws. He’s a misanthrope and a monster, obsessed with family but unwilling to risk the emotional pain families inevitably cause. Plainview is ruined by his profession, hollowed out like some dug out old oil well. In another world, perhaps, he might have ended up differently. He chooses his fate, embraces his hatred, and ends up a despicable, hollowed out man.
The story goes that Anderson cobbled together this script from a number of sources, including discarded scenes from There Will Be Blood and anecdotes Jason Robards told him on the set of Magnolia. Anderson then added stories from the early days of Scientology and placed the whole thing in the 1950s post-war milieu. The movie doesn’t feel fractured so much as stitched together. The most powerful scenes, of Quell undergoing grueling psychological programming at the hands of Dodd, don’t fit with the most beautiful shots of Quell as a sailor at the end of the war. And this might be the most beautiful shot in all of cinema.
My vote for the most beautiful shot of the year.
The result is a film that feels meticulous yet sloppy. The costumes, the music, and the interiors all feel just right. The scenes are mesmerizing. The acting is superb.
And yet. We’re back to those missing scenes, that hole at the heart of the film. Like Lawrence coming out of the desert, a shimmering figure that somehow loses substance as he comes into view. What draws these two characters together? And what forces them apart? The movie’s answer, given in a flim flam speech at the end, is silly, a bizarre fill-in for the ambiguity both men feel about their mutual attraction.
Like many of his peers (Wes Anderson, Tarantino, Araki) Anderson’s been steeped in the language of film for so long he sometimes feels overly concerned with cinema, and not concerned enough with his storytelling.
Nowhere is this so evident than near the end of The Master when Quell falls asleep in a movie theater. He begins to dream, and in his dream receives a phone call from Dodd. It’s the one scene in the movie that simply does not work. It feels contrived (after the phone call Quell travels to England to have a final confrontation with Dodd), too self-serving and tidy (the epiphany comes in a movie theater!), and beneath the complexity of the rest of the film.
Throughout Anderson flouts many of the golden rules of screenwriting: there’s no real structure; the characters don’t seem to change; the issues aren’t numerated; the point of the whole thing is left up to the viewer. Anderson said in a recent interview, regarding the movie: “The characters don’t figure it out. They start the same and they end the same.” For all his virtuosic skill—and this is the thing that rubs some people the wrong way—Anderson no longer craves the audience’s approval. He’s been freed. But this freedom carries gravitas, and can weigh an artist down. Audience expectations keep a movie structured.
Anderson is undeniably talented with the camera. And he often fixes narrative issues with his visual brio. He’s the best parts of Robert Altman, Elia Kazan, George Stevens, Robert Bresson, Francis Coppola, Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. He’s rigorous, challenging, entertaining, haunting and revelatory. He’s a synthesis of old and new Hollywood. I love him for this, and you should love him, too.
For all its flaws, the movie is a masterpiece of acting, some of the best performances I’ve seen. Amy Adams is excellent. She plays Dodd’s wife, mousy on the outside but steely, driven, controlling. Hoffman is superb, balancing his character’s self-conscious lying with his self-delusion. But Phoenix delivers a performance that is unhinged, feral, outrageous. He plays the role like some black-hearted animal. He channels Brando (from Last Tango) and Jack Nicholson (from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and half a dozen others, but with a dash of untamed wildness that is mostly new. He’s ferocious, demonic, yet deeply wounded. The story from the set is that he kept destroying things during the filming, and director Anderson just kept the camera rolling.
Adams is superb, stealing every scene in the movie.
Phoenix didn’t win the best actor award. His performance was too unruly, too disturbed, too personal. There’s only a whiff of mainstream assimilation for his character, and this right at the end of the film.
Hoffman didn’t win either, which was nuts. He’s incredible, both arrogant and also vulnerable, an improvement on Andy Griffith’s very fine performance as a manipulative huckster in Face in the Crowd. He’s cruel one minute, kind the next.
So the best acting of the year was passed over.
The fact that The Master has struggled to find an audience, and Lawrence of Arabia was a success, speaks oodles about moviegoers. Lawrence utilizes a more formal visual language, a longer running time, and is less satisfying as a film.
Still, Lawrence of Arabia is important. There Will Be Blood is important. The Master, somehow, is not.
So is The Master the best movie of this past year? No, but Vertigo shouldn’t be considered the best movie of the 20th century, either. They’re too odd, overflowing with too much hinted-at perversity, too concerned with the internal territory novels handle so well. Both auger in despair and hopelessness, detailing shattered lives. But is The Master the most interesting movie I’ve seen this year? Undoubtedly.
 Or more likely intentionally left out of the filming process.
 Although there’s a great desert scene, too.
 A second missing scene, or series of scenes, must involve Quell’s actions in the war. He’s murdered and killed, he’s seen horrible things, and these too inform his madness.
 Or perhaps it’s Nicole Kidman’s derriere at the beginning of Eyes Wide Shut.
 Although this was the strongest best supporting actor competition in my lifetime.
 But it’s oodles better than Argo.