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'The Master:' Wizardry or just odd?

October 1, 2012 - Ray Eckenrode

Listen: Freddy Quell has come unstuck in time.

Or has he?

With apologies to Kurt Vonnegut, we think that’s really the question at the center of Paul Thomas Anderson’s mesmerizing, confounding, controversial and thought-provoking new film, “The Master.”

Ironically, the controversy around “The Master” was supposed to involve whether it was about Scientology, the Hollywood-hip supercult. Instead, it’s about whether the film is about anything at all.

So we’ll start with this disclaimer: If you go to the movies for the stories and the escape and the entertainment (and there’s nothing wrong with that), don’t go see “The Master” and don’t read any more of this story. However, if you’re fine with occasionally being challenged (and frustrated) in a theater while ruminating on the nature of love, sex, hope, dreams, reality, illusion, where we come from, why we’re here (and perhaps even what the role of movie making itself is in our lives), by all means, step right in.

Let’s start with marveling at how PTA has evolved (or devolved) as a filmmaker from the thick, straight narrative of “Boogie Nights” to the fable-like layers of “Magnolia” to the ultimate moral play of “There Will Be Blood” to this movie, which has only the bare bones of an actual story. The moral here is that it’s very hard to make a movie like “The Master” in Hollywood without first making movies like the first three. That says a lot about the nature of entertainment, art and us, the audience.

What story there is in “The Master” goes something like this: Quell (played with innate ferociousness by Phoenix, who is a revelation in his physical approach to the role, contorting his frame in ways the human body was not meant to contort) is a troubled – no, borderline deranged – World War II vet, struggling to find a place in the world after his tour in the Pacific. Nearing rock bottom, he accidentally stumbles (literally) across Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic leader of a cult called The Cause (played with just the right amount of persona and perplexity by the always-amazing Hoffman). Dodd is intrigued enough by Quell that he invites him into his movement and into his family. Questions about the nature of the two men’s unique bond, about the origin and teachings of The Cause and about whether Quell can be “fixed” by Dodd fuel the second half of “The Master.” Whether you feel like those questions are sufficiently posed or answered will likely point to whether you enjoy the film or scream that the emperor has no clothes.

We’ve seen big-time critics comparing this film to “Citizen Kane” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” We think potential viewers would be better served to say it borrows elements of “The Wizard of Oz” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In assessing “The Master,” it might help to remember what Stanley Kubrick said about the latter film, noting that be believed the truth of something could be found in the “feel” not the “think.”

Watch and listen very closely to “The Master,” every scene matters, but try not to overthink it, at least at first. You’ll have plenty of time for that later.

What is real?

What is imagined?

Does it matter if there’s a difference?

We’re not usually in the habit of suggesting how someone else should watch a movie, but we’ll make an exception here for what is obviously an exceptional film:

+ The opening scene of the movie is a critical piece. Don’t try to understand it, but make sure you really SEE it, take in the images and, if you’re an Andy Warhol fan, remember what he believed about images.

+ Laughter is an important signpost. You’ll likely sense that early and eventually you’ll be told that. Pay close attention to who laughs, why and when.

+ We believe there are two ultra-illuminating conversations in the film, the one between Hoffman and Laura Dern’s characters (Helen Sullivan, one of Dodd’s most ardent supporters) at The Cause convention and the final one between Hoffman and Phoenix. Listen.

+ But don’t just listen (although Jonny Greenwood's score provides plenty of opportunity for that, too). Look at Hoffman and Phoenix’s faces. Anderson worships those faces, he unmasks them, he blows them up 100 feet tall, we see every imperfection, every scrape, every wind burn. Feel those faces. The man who made the film obviously wants us to.

If you haven’t guessed by now, “The Master” worked for us. We find ourselves still thinking about it days after seeing it, recognizing a new nuance our brain didn’t process at first, recalling a new image whose significance eluded us at first.

We know there are plenty who’ve seen the film who disagree. And that’s fine. Art is about the relationship between the artist and the person viewing the work. Films can be different things to different people and there’s no right or wrong interpretation (while there ARE popular interpretations). That’s why the greatest artists remain silent (or coy) when they’re asked what their work “means.”

Paul Thomas Anderson certainly fits that bill, and he’s certainly earned the right to make the exact movie he wanted to make. Whether you consider “The Master” his masterpiece (or a piece of something else) depends wholly on you. So let us ask you: Do your past failures bother you? Was your life a struggle? …

I am looking for:

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The nature of the relationship between Lancaster Dodd and Freddy Quell gets to the heart of the matter in "The Master."


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