Much has already been written about “The Master”, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest feature. Initial discussions focused primarily on the parallels between one of the protagonists, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic leader of a cult-like faction in the immediate post-World War II United States, and that of real-life Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Once people began to see the movie, however, and appreciate that these similarities exist to provide a narrative template and mostly disappeared beyond the surface of the character, the discussion turned to the dual performances at the movie’s core, the first being that of Mr. Hoffman. An Anderson regular, Hoffman brings to bear his considerable charms and persuasiveness as the slippery patriarch of a constantly evolving family both biological and artificial, more Anderson touchstones. The second performance is Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell, a seriously unhinged, booze addled Navy veteran whose circuitous post-war existence eventually places him in the camp of Dodd and his “Cause”.
Discovered as a stowaway aboard a ship (sailing imagery abounds) hosting the wedding ceremony and reception for Dodd’s daughter, Quell is allowed to partake in the festivities, provided he conjures more of the alcohol and chemical hybrid that Dodd finished. Fresh off spectacular failures in portrait photography and migrant farming, and needing little excuse to agree to a drinking proposition, Quell hangs around.
This two-way relationship is absolutely where a great deal of the discussion relating to the movie belongs, in my opinion. This should not suggest that no other performers are worthy of the same degree of mention, however. Shining brightest amongst a game supporting cast is Amy Adams, so good and ubiquitous over the last decade or so, here cast somewhat against type as the suspicious, devoted and behind-the-scenes influential matriarch to Dodd’s would-be revolutionary. Ms. Adams’ girl next-door demeanor and polite, measured tones belie a menacing fervor; she is a true believer and knows what she wants. And yet while a flesh and blood human being, her role in what story there is serves primarily to highlight the conflict between these two men.
Over the next few hours the audience is introduced, though not schooled, in some of the teachings and practices of The Cause. A recurring motif, in both the exercises and the film’s chronology, is the persistence of memory, and Anderson illustrates this theme with fittingly surreal flourishes. An early instance has Dodd “processing” Quell, asking him a series of disjointed, personal, rapid fire questions, not unlike Freddie’s psychiatric evaluation prior to his Navy discharge, though noticeably more cathartic. The sequence requires the acting be realistic and, as a result, is severely unnerving. Both men asking and responding to such ridiculous questions (“Do your past failures haunt you?”, “Have you had intercourse with a relative?”) with sincere conviction could only be believable in the hands of major talent, as it is here. (The scene calls to mind another early, set-piece dialogue in recent movie history: Christoph Waltz’s opening interrogation in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. That discussion features Waltz as chiseler, chipping away at his French farmer’s defenses with each sentence until the inevitable, awful climax is reached. Anderson’s talk, while just as emotionally wrenching, has no obvious goal. Dodd exerts some degree of mental and emotional dominance, but is clearly moved and impressed with his subject, and that vague appreciation permeates the movie.) Beyond the principles, the filmmaking itself is exciting and yet familiar. It is an exhausting back and forth, a literal staring contest rooted very much in the ticking-clock now while yielding moments of grace and despondency, as Dodd has Freddie parse through his hometown memories to arrive at something concrete, some reason for his violent meandering. That something, at least partially, winds up being a sometimes deliberately (on Freddie’s part) elusive girl Quell allows to enter and exit his life with similar ease. And while Quell is very much an id driven individual, combining any measure of liquids that will impair cognitive function and often pursuing women with increasingly overt strategies, the females in his life are more representative of the great unknown he would like to have shown to him, if only he would sit still for it.
Convenient, then, that someone seeking instruction comes upon another promising direction. Anderson uses this relationship as a platform to touch on a number of issues which were surely prevalent in post-war America, and certainly persist today, namely: middle class ennui, broken families, lost opportunities for companionship, and the crushing awareness that problems of the mind will exist in any geographic location.
This dynamic, Quell the searcher and Dodd the navigator, defines their connection. Dodd has found in Freddie exactly the type of follower a “mystic”, as he is referred to later in the movie, would both love to have and can not abide. It is imperative to have the unquestioned devotion of a few so as to encourage loyalty amongst the rest. But for a chameleon like Dodd, when it becomes convenient to change course and rewrite the book (or, in his case, release a sequel) shifting the foundations of his entire system, this sort of manic commitment can be difficult to maneuver. And it’s this sustained tension that prevents any actual narrative conclusion from appearing. If both men could just be honest with one another, perhaps they’d be friends for life. But from the movie we get the impression that Dodd won’t descend from his self-important perch for more than a few drunken moments with Freddie, often retreating to the steady embrace of Ms. Adams. Dodd is not above a ribald evening of celebration, but each time reverts to the dapper image he prefers to broadcast. Quell, no matter how many times he is dressed up and prepared for the public, remains restlessness personified; all wandering eyes and hands-on-hips passive inquisitiveness, it’s as if he’s perpetually studying his environment but absorbing nothing. Not to mention the fact that often times it seems his only reason for hanging around with Dodd is the free booze, though he is discouraged from drinking.
A short interlude in the second half of the movie represents, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, the mission statement of the picture and does so with a straightforwardness that is surprising, considering the overall undefined feel of the movie. Quell, along with Dodd, his daughter and son- in-law, head out to an unspecified desert for a bit of motorcycle horseplay. Dodd proposes they engage in a game called “Point” (minor validation for my contention this is the movie’s main theme), a simple game that has the rider choose a distant reference point and then race their at top speed. Dodd demonstrates easily enough and hands over the reigns to Freddie, who looks at the machine uneasily (and makes the audience uneasy I would imagine, given that his state of mind and sobriety are unknown at this time) but then boards and is off. Dodd mutters a light “good boy” when he notices Freddie accelerate as instructed. His pride quickly diminishes, however, when he recognizes Freddie has no intention to stop and head back and barks his name in resigned futility, fully aware that you can’t ask a program to stop computing its task once you hit “go”.
That is what the movie leaves us with, as well. The frustration of a leader whose most malleable acolyte is also his most unwieldy contrasted with the primal nature of a man who craves definition for his life but resists commitment at every encounter. The 1950s setting allows for gorgeous fashion and inspired musical cues but is inessential when the movie is mostly concerned with ideas. We’re not sure if Freddie is deranged from war or simply deranged, and even then is the conscious decision to believe in an empty orator any saner than genuine mental instability?
Dodd explains to Freddie that in a past life they were allies in a Prussian siege, and in a future incarnation it is likely they will be sworn enemies with no quarter shown. At this rate it seems natural that their current relationship is uneasy and co-dependent, ships crossing in the night along decidedly different currents leaving behind marvelous wakes.