As I was waiting to behold the 70mm screening of The Master at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome, the previous screening exited and something I’ve never seen at a movie screening happened. The first two people out the door burst into the warm night air, held up their middle fingers, and shouted “This film fucking sucks! You’ve wasted your money!”
What a way to prepare to see a new movie, right?
A bit unnerved, I entered the Cinerama Dome for the first time, was excited and overwhelmed by its massive interior and unique history. After all, 2001 premiered there in 70mm back in ’68. But soon enough, I was caught up in a conversation with another filmgoer. He had already seen The Master twice, and was back for a third go around. “It’s awesome,” he exclaimed with a giddy smile stretching over his face. “One of the best films I’ve ever seen.”
I relaxed a bit, hoping I’d see things more his way. Yet, I kept thinking of the volcanic reaction of the people outside. Suffice to say, I was nervous. I shouldn’t have been, of course. This is, after all, just a movie; some people love a film, some people hate it. So what?
But this isn’t just any film. This is The Master, the new film from Paul Thomas Anderson, whose work matters. A new geeky superhero film? Whatever. There are some filmmakers you have higher hopes for, whose perspective in their art is more than just beautiful commercialism. Anderson is an Artist, with a capital ‘A,’ like Scorsese, Tarantino, Godard, Kurosawa, Coppola, and Hitchcock. His films matter. Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood – these films changed the way I watched film. He is a true auteur, and since he doesn’t make many films (6 films in 17 years), a new work from him is something special. So, I was nervous and conflicted. I had been waiting for this movie for over a year and a half, since I first heard about it; it wasn’t allowed to suck. So that vitriolic review outside stuck with me, like the leftovers of a nightmare.
Then the movie started, I settled in. I let it wash over me like the ocean imagery that serves as the film’s defining motif.
The Master is a singularly frustrating film, one of the few that I left the theater uncertain of my opinion. It is a well-acted, beautifully shot film with a hypnotic score and pace, yet its narrative seems unfulfilling; it comes to a resolution that is both perplexing and initially underwhelming. And while I left the theater feeling disappointment and confusion, I ultimately felt as if I had seen something great that I couldn’t quite understand. I felt guilty, as if there was something wrong with me for not loving it.
The film tells the story of impulsive powder keg, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix in what will be his career defining performance), who is a WWII vet that comes back from the war a damaged vagabond. He is an alcoholic who specializes in mixing potent moonshine, and manages to get himself in trouble everywhere he goes. This penchant for making trouble eventually leads him to stow away on a ship hosting a party that happens to be setting sail for New York City.
The ship is mastered by the film’s title character, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who gives the best performance of his incredible career). Dodd’s first appearance is spell-binding. “Who are you?” Freddie asks him, hung over from the night before. “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.” Dodd, we learn, is the founder and leader of a religious cult called ‘The Cause.’ It is reminiscent of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard’s pseudo-scientific religion that was started around the time this film is set, the early 1950s. Dodd is a remarkably charismatic man, who dominates a room with his personality, has a boisterous sense of humor, yet can be aloof and hot-tempered.
Freddie and Dodd form an immediate bond, at first because of Freddie’s desirable moonshine (made with paint thinner), but eventually because each man seems to find something irresistible in the other. Part of the film’s frustration emerges from not being able to put your finger on exactly what this is. Does Dodd want Freddie around because he can control him? Perhaps. Or, is it because he feels that by ‘processing’ Freddie using his faith’s indoctrination system, he can somehow control the savagery within himself? And what about Freddie? Is he hanging around with Dodd because he needs a father figure to help him find meaning in this suddenly meaningless world? Maybe it’s because being involved with The Cause is the only place he is accepted. Another idea is that these men are in love with each other. Watching the way they light up cigarettes after Freddie’s first processing session has the same vibe as two lovers in a post-coital smoke.
Paul Thomas Anderson is smart never to fully define the relationship, and allows his other characters to comment on it, revealing different elements. Most notably, we have Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams, adding to her exceptional resume after strong turns in Doubt and The Fighter), Lancaster’s pregnant wife, who is skeptical of Freddie’s place in their world. She keeps Lancaster in check, and in one fantastic scene, involving perhaps the coldest handjob in cinema history, Peggy makes it clear that she is having none of Freddie’s funny business without even mentioning his name. Besides Peggy, though, Dodd’s son, Val (Jesse Plemons) reveals to Freddie that his father isn’t necessarily on the level, and the rest of Dodd’s followers are in a mixed state of belief and loyalty.
I think those followers may be representative of the audience for this film. I know I was mixed in many ways initially. The film is at first gorgeous. Mihai Malaimare’s cinematography is stunning, the colors and textures popping off the screen, seemingly tangible. The compositions, as expected from Anderson, are complex, and will no doubt bring about a variety of new interpretations on future viewings. And Johnny Greenwood’s score is the best of the year – so hypnotic, so memorable; I can still hear the tick-tocking in my head as I write this. Technically, The Master is a win in every category. But on the narrative level, it is so challenging that it almost feels anti-climatic. The film’s emotional climax is slight, quiet, completely unexpected from two explosive characters. And the resolution is so strange as to invite many interpretations.
All this ambiguity was what bothered me as I left the theater that evening. And then a couple days later, it occurred to me that the ambiguity is exactly why this film is a masterpiece. Our relationships in life are defined in ambiguous terms, especially our deepest ones. Anderson’s film is savvy, not quick to give answers like so many other filmmakers. He allows us to see what we want in these characters. Is the relationship between Freddie and Dodd a father/son relationship in the same way the relationship between Dirk Diggler and Jack Horner was in Boogie Nights, or the way Daniel Plainview’s relationship with Eli Sunday was in There Will Be Blood? Maybe. You can certainly see it that way. But you can also see their relationship as romantic, too. Or you can see it as parasitic. It is all of these at different moments, because that is what relationships are – they are many things at different points in our lives. We have been conditioned by most films to expect dynamic characters who change and evolve. Anderson’s script gives us static characters who don’t change, yet whose very presence in each other’s lives reveals a variety of things about them. This film isn’t about change; it’s about revelation.
Maybe those people who left the Cinerama Dome that night, flipping off and cursing this beautiful film hadn’t yet processed this. Will they? I hope so. It took me a few days of thinking about the movie before I could figure out what I had just seen. How many movies demand this sort of thinking from us?
I’m glad I didn’t come to such an immediate bi-polar reaction. Paul Thomas Anderson deserves much better than that.