"Tom and I are Still Friends"
One wonders why, if a (laughable) movie trailer was so important to cause bloodshed in the Middle East, The Master isn't causing a ruckus in Los Angeles, the home of Scientology. Perhaps Scientologists have thicker skins (and more tolerance) than radical Islamists, who seem to find any excuse to cause harm at the drop of a Koran, or perhaps it would cause a worrisome spike in the members' auditing, or because—really—it has less to do with Scientology than other issues...like what would draw someone to a situation like Scientology—or any belief system—in the first place.
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film has a similar theme to his previous films—the combustibility of individuals in a collective, and takes a similar tack—get the best individuals in their fields, wind them up and let them go, producing an oblique open-ended vessel into which audiences can pour their interpretations. It's not that Anderson doesn't have anything to say, so much as he'll be damned if he comes right out and says it, and sets up situations that suggest relevancy, waiting for the happy accident that will inform the whole. It's not that there isn't a directorial hand here—there's a reason there are so many close-up's—it's that there's isn't a sure directorial stance.
We first encounter Freddie Quell (Phoenix) in the Navy during the battles in the South Pacific during World War II.* Even there, in the midst of hundreds of young men in close quarters, he's an outsider, a loner connecting with no one except for his one discernible skill-mixing noxious brain-cell killing concoctions out of anything handy. He spends his time isolated, in some form of inebriation, the limits of behavior and humor blurred to indiscernibility, and when he's out of the service, he's immediately transferred to a psych division, where he is examined endlessly to no avail—the doctors are spending all their time trying to find the answer to what's wrong. It's all too obvious what's wrong—he's a barely functioning alcoholic obsessed with sex—but there's no cure for a complete lack of self-awareness or perspective, and Quell is released to the world, unchanged and unremorseful, just another problem that can't fixed and so is dispatched out of anyone's responsibility, to let Nature or Darwinism deal with him. He's a perpetual outcast on the edge of functionality, unstable and instinctually acting out. A job as a department store photographer ends up as an ironic choice—he spends his days looking in, trying to document normalcy, while on breaks, he uses his darkroom chemicals to create some bizarre cocktail to fry his brain and ease his isolation, while trying to make time with a store model. Phoenix is brilliant in this, a raw nerve and not just mercurial, but mercurial at a high boil. The photography job ends with a violent incident of his own making, and he winds up as a migrant worker where, again, he moonlights with moonshine, and has to go on the lam where he stows away on a boat that has been commandeered for a wedding party.
It's here that he meets Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman in a varied, extravagant performance that feels a bit like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane) self-described as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you."
"Just like you."
Yes and no. Dodd is the gypsy-evangelist of something called "The Cause," a nebulous philosophy for which he is the architect and messiah. The rules of The Cause change a bit according to need and the whims of Dodd (who erupts in petulant anger when challenged on it, by believers and non- alike) even though the origins of it supposedly date back "trillions of years" (later, his son will tell Quell "he's just making all this up as he goes along"). He's drawn to Quell for his potent concoctions, for his raw contrariness, which Dodd finds a challenge to his self-improvement methods (called "processing"), and because Quell's feral anti-social fury is a reflection of Dodd's free-thinking, but with the irresponsibility that he doesn't have the freedom to practice. Both men are self-medicating outliers, unable or unwilling to fit in—square pegs in the rounded holes of society.
For Quell, Dodd's processing is a tonic, though not as bracing as what he can make himself, a form of questioning self-examination that, instead of making one feel bad about oneself, makes one feel good. And for Quell, seeming to belong for the first time in his life, The Cause feels like home and family.
Not all the family is happy, though. Dodd's followers, including his Lady McBeth of a wife (Adams), fear Quell's aggressiveness and unpredictability, she especially questions whether Quell will ever improve and worries about the effect he will have on her husband and their cottage industry. Quell may be the best patient for the very therapy that they espouse, but the danger lies in how much damage he will prove to their house of cards in the process. It's a battle of co-dependents for The Cause, while the two men find the limits to their visions of paradise. There's a lot of room for mis-interpretation here, most especially in Dodd and Quell's scene in which the older man seeks to calm the emotions of both of them by singing, as if it was a lullaby, "(I'd Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China" which ends with the phrases "All to myself/Alone," emphasizing the isolation of both the Messiah and the acolyte, as they set themselves adrift.
So, in the end, once the credits have rolled up, what does it all mean? What's the point?** I'm honest enough with myself to say I don't have a flippin' clue, except what I've laid out here as themes and observations, but will admit that it is all up there on the screen, ready to be interpreted in as individual a manner as any audience member can provide, which is what makes Anderson (along with Terrence Malick, who is a bit more focused) one of our most enigmatic of filmmakers. Whether that makes him a visionary or a charlatan—like the filmmakers, captains of industry, and religious leaders he portrays, making it up as he goes along—depends on our interpretation, as well. And it is enough for me that he continues on the path he takes—not going for the easy superhero flick, or facile rom-com—without compromising anything...not even his intentions. It makes him brave, admirable...and always watchable. Challenging to be sure, but I like a challenge.
The Master is a Matinee.
|After useless psychoanalysis, Freddie turns the examination on others.|
|What color are her eyes? You decide.|
|No, really. We're all together in this.|
* One of the running motifs of the film is the time spent on ships of some sort, adrift.
** It's been amusing to read film critics struggling with this one, some finally merely knocking over their king to just call it a "character study." It's a tough one, alright. But, it is trying to say something about the human condition, even if only to say it has no easy answers, either, not even for those who espouse and specialize in easy answers. I like that, but one wishes there was more provided by the film-maker, rather than just providing a rorschach test for us to throw our interpretations onto.