Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth film, The Master, provides an almost jarring and uncomfortable view of World War II veteran Freddie Quell, devastatingly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, Freddie mixes drinks using gasoline, paint thinner and anything else he can get his hands on. We watch as he unflinchingly gulps down concoctions in scenes where his desperation is almost painful to watch. Over the course of the film, Anderson makes us increasingly aware of the fact that it is impossible for him to reintegrate into polite ’50s post-War society.
One night Freddie drunkenly walks onto the yacht of Lancaster Dodd, the enigmatic leader of a quasi-religious movement known as “The Cause.” In the scene, Dodd – portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman – is celebrating his daughter’s marriage aboard the vessel. He meets Freddie and takes a liking to both him and his penchant for using household items to create alcoholic beverages. Dodd initiates Freddie into The Cause, interrogating him with existential questions which later prompt visible psychological distress.
The film, which will be screening at Images until Nov. 1, takes as deep a look at the respective insecurities of its main characters, Dodd and Freddie. It is a haunting examination of how easy it is for people to allow themselves to be controlled. Freddie follows Dodd and his family across the East Coast as he spreads his message, violently reacting to anyone who dares to speak out against his master. Just as chilling as Dodd is his wife Sue, portrayed by Amy Adams, who reveals herself to be even more controlling than her husband.
The Master is beautifully shot, bringing to life the subtle pastel palette of the ’50s. Anderson’s style takes several visual cues from Kubrick, using longer mid- and long-range cuts that usually linger – sometimes uncomfortably – on quiet silences, interspersed with close-ups of the characters when they are at their most unpredictable and ambiguous. What is most unsettling about Freddie, Lancaster and Sue is that no matter how much of them you see on screen, no matter how much pain you see on Freddie’s face, insecurity you hear in Lancaster’s voice or eerie calm you hear in Sue’s, you can’t fully understand them. Their motivations, desires or inner demons remain frustratingly hidden in the half-light. Even when Freddie is at his most violent, you don’t feel that you’re seeing his genuine self. The true Freddie is lost somewhere, and all that’s left is him at his most primal. The version of him we are permitted to see is an almost child-like shell of himself. We watch as he violently struggles, fighting not for dignity or respect and not even for survival: just for the last ounce of sanity he might still have. Thus, there is a desperation in Freddie’s character that Dodd takes cruel advantage of. By the end of the film, the characters all seem vacant, completely absorbed in themselves – they almost don’t feel like real characters.
Perhaps this is the magic of Anderson’s film. Like the deranged youth Alex in Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange and the almost inhuman oil tycoon Daniel Plainview in Anderson’s previous film, 2007’s There Will Be Blood, the main characters in The Master move through their sets with reckless abandon even as they cause alternatively subtle and obvious pain and distress to those around them. What’s most horrifying about them is that you don’t know how far they will go, and often they surprise you even when you’re not expecting anything to happen. Anderson locks you in with his characters and isn’t afraid to let them stare you in the eye.
The Master is not a happy movie, and I don’t recommend it to anyone looking for a particularly heart-warming night out. Detractors have said that the movie builds up its characters, but has nowhere for them to go. Nevertheless, I think that this is the purpose of the movie: Freddie literally has no place to go. The saddest part is that Freddie genuinely tries: He simple continues to fail. That’s why it’s so easy for Dodd to indoctrinate him, and he holds power over him even when Freddie tries to escape. This is a character movie, and it is also a period piece that draws some pretty terrifying parallels to our own time. It’s a film about reintegration, weakness and about looking for an answer. In There Will Be Blood, Daniel Plainview makes his own answers, his own future. Freddie is more distorted than Plainview, though, and he doesn’t have those luxuries. What’s horrifying about Dodd, on the other hand, is that we know people like him: people who can convince not only others, but even themselves, of their own ideas and reach their breaking point when challenged. Their strength comes from others’ fears.