Charismatic cult leader and con artist Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his closest disciples including his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and newest recruit Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) in a rare moment of mutual self-doubt in Paul Thomas Anderson’s maddeningly ambiguous and new movie The Master.
If there’s a movie critics’ code, it’s more like…guidelines. And one of the guidelines is this: If you call a movie a work of genius, you’re probably right, but you’re also indentifying what’s wrong with it.
The Master is a work of genius.
Relentlessly, unremittingly, 65mm frame projected at 70mm by 65mm frame projected at 70mm, from beginning to end, it’s stamped with director Paul Thomas Anderson’s genius.
Every shot is meticulously composed, beautifully photographed, visually precise, tonally exact. Every scene is structurally flawless and perfectly paced. Not a line or gesture is misplaced or lost.
And annoying as all get out.
There’s so much to look at, so much to think about, so much to admire and wonder at, so much brilliance on display that it’s maddeningly hard to sit back and just enjoy the movie while getting caught up in the story. Getting caught up actually means getting wrapped up in trying to figure out what the hell is going on.
It’s not that there's no story. It's that large sections of the story take place off screen. We rarely see characters go from point A to point B. We're presented with point B after point B with an occasional leap ahead to point G and and a jump back to point D or maybe at last to a point A. The consequences of decisions made and actions taken in those unseen points A play out in the points B. The consequences of decisions made and actions taken in the points B play out in the points A or, often, and as far as we know, don’t play out, because we never hear about them or see the fallout dramatized in away we can be sure is a consewuence of what did or did not happen. It’s as if what we're seeing are scenes brought back second-hand by a disinterested observer who keeps wandering into that story and returning with the equivalent of news footage that he shows us without commentary. The narrative that contains these scenes and connects them isn't even implied. It has to be inferred.
Here’s how we’re introduced to the main character in the first fifteen minutes or so of the film:
At the end of World War II, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) leaves the Navy, apparently a basket case, having, possibly, suffered…something while serving aboard a what? Destroyer? Freighter? Admiral's yacht? We don’t get to see the whole ship. Whatever it is, it carries torpedoes but doesn’t seem to have guns. Maybe we’re not seeing only one ship. Did Quell serve aboard several ships? Is that important? Possibly. What does seem important is that he has spent some time in a psych ward and has to see several shrinks before he’s mustered out. Is he crazy? How crazy? What made him crazy? Was it something in his childhood? Was it the war? Was it drinking torpedo fuel in celebration of VJ Day, and, boy, wasn’t that scene beautifully composed and photographed? Surely Anderson will tell us or…maybe not. At any rate, reentering civilian life Quell somehow lands a job as a photographer in a department store. He seems to be good at the job but he loses it when for no apparent reason he decides to antagonize a customer who looks so much like Philip Seymour Hoffman that at first I thought it was Philip Seymour Hoffman and this was Anderson's version of a meet cute. But it wasn’t him. Just a character that looks like his character and what is the point of that? We’re not told. It’s left to us to figure out for ourselves, except that we’re not given time. The next thing we know Quell is hurrying from the store, having quit or been fired---it’s not shown which---with his girlfriend who immediately disappears from the movie when the scene changes to Quell working on a farm picking cabbages…where? Somewhere in California, it looks like...supplementing his income by making moonshine---Quell is a mad scientist of an amateur distiller, whipping up cocktails out of whatever he can lay his hands on that might contain alcohol, torpedo fuel, darkroom chemicals, cleaning fluid, battery acid---until he has to run for his life from some Filipino migrant workers who think he's deliberately poisoned an old man with his homemade hooch. He runs and he runs and he runs across a dusty field and then runs, apparently non-stop, all the way from wherever the farm is to the waterfront in San Francisco where he arrives just in time to leap from a pier onto a yacht as it steams out into the harbor and towards the Golden Gate Bridge and a gorgeously photographed sunset. There’s a party on the upper deck, people are dancing under Chinese lanterns, and Quell rushes up a flight of stairs as if he’s a guest arriving late. But the next we see him, it’s morning and he’s waking up in a cabin below, hung over, with no memory of how he got there, no memory of having applied for the job he now, apparently, holds as a member of the yacht’s crew, no memory of the pretty young woman standing at the foot of his bunk with a smile that suggests she has very clear memories of him that are going to keep her in company on many a lonely night to come. Or maybe she’s just kind and friendly and finds Quell likable and amusing. She doesn’t say. And anyway she’s not there to explain anything, only to take Quell to see him. Lancaster Dodd. The Master. Who apparently knows all about Quell without ever having met him before---in this life.
Five years have passed.
All this is presented straight-forwardly, naturalistically, as if this is just the way the world is and without Quell showing any sign he’s aware that none of it makes the least bit of sense.
Quell is crazy. It’s hard to say how crazy. But he is definitely far from rational. He’s intelligent, sensitive, and wants to be a good man but he has no self-control. He’s a puppet to his inner demons and driven every which way by instinct and impulse. And he has severely emotionally crippling mommy issues that have rendered him pliant, guilt-ridden, and desperate for approval and, as if they’re the same thing, punishment. And this is how a madman like Freddie Quell would experience his life, as disjointed, random, lacking meaning or direction. The camera’s point of view is not subjective. If anything it’s clinically objective. Which fits, if we assume Quell doesn’t know he’s nuts and has no idea that he’s not seeing things as they really are. And this tension between the incoherence of the narrative and the pitiless coherence of the visuals that express it but don’t explain it is a stroke of genius. You could write a doctoral thesis on this aspect of The Master alone.
But how many people go to the movies in hopes of finding a subject for their dissertation?
And that’s the way the whole movie goes. One sequence after another relieving the anxieties of future Ph.D.’s while leaving the majority of the audience asking themselves, Will there be a quiz?
Or even, Is the movie a quiz? Should I have studied? And studied what exactly?
The previous films of Paul Thomas Anderson, perhaps. Along with Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood, the Master can be thought of as a chapter in Anderson’s ongoing cinematic history of the United States told through the lives of various pure products of America who have, as William Carlos Williams said such pure products do, gone crazy.
There’s another dissertation.
You could also have studied Anderson’s influences, chiefly here, Citizen Kane. The Master is a retelling of Citizen Kane but as if Welles had decided to make Joseph Cotton’s character the main character but told Cotton to play it as if he was Everett Sloane doing Mr Bernstein suffering from a migraine and a hangover and after six nights of sleeping on a bad mattress, trying to do an impersonation of Popeye the Sailor Man.
I’m not kidding about Popeye. As Quell, Phoenix goes through much of the movie with one eye squinked shut, his nose hooking over his twisted lip and toothless smile, talking out of the side of his mouth in a croaking mumble. He even stands with his hands on the back of his hips, hunched slightly forward, with his chin cocked, the way Popeye sometimes did in the Fleischer cartoons. In addition he has reduced himself to skin and bone, somehow taken several inches of his height, and willed every touch of leading man handsomeness out of his face. Often he looks like a young Darren McGavin. Other times he looks more like Abraham Lincoln than Daniel Day-Lewis in Spielberg’s upcoming biopic. It’s a very weird physical performance, considering Quell is supposed to be irresistible to young women.
In contrast, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Lancaster Dodd is relaxed, smooth, and almost totally without gimmick. It’s the most natural portrayal of a completely artificial man you’ll probably ever see. The founder of a quasi-religion and self-help movement vaguely resembling Scientology, Dodd is an obvious fraud, such an obvious fraud, in fact, that it’s hard to believe anyone, even a madman like Quell, would buy the snake oil he’s selling. But he’s also such a genial and charming rogue and is enjoying his own con game so much that people can’t help wanting to join the fun. Nobody, not even Dodd, knows what’s going to happen next. Brought back from a hypnotic “trance” in which Dodd has supposedly placed her in order for her to re-experience a past life, one of his dupes or disciples---same difference---eagerly prompts him for the right responses to his questions as if she’s afraid she might spoil the game by making up the wrong answer. Dodd’s own son tells Quell that Dodd is making it up as he goes. But that’s part of the fun.
But along with the fun and games, Dodd is making something else up as he goes or, rather, somebody. Himself.
It’s more than that Dodd is caught up in his own con to the point of forgetting it is a con. He is the con. That is, the object of the whole charade is to create the persona of Lancaster Dodd. Dodd calls his movement the Cause. But the Cause is the cause of his existence. It brings him to life. We don’t know what would happen to him without it, if people stopped believing in the Cause and in him, except that he would cease to be Lancaster Dodd, and whatever not being Lancaster Dodd is, Hoffman lets us see that it’s horrible enough to terrify him in moments of doubt and repellent enough that the slightest doubt on the part of any disciple enrages him.
The possibility that he’ll revert to whatever it was he was enrages and repels his wife Peggy too (played by Amy Adams with a frightening chilliness I’ve never seen from her before). Of course if he reverts, she’ll revert along with him, and that makes her all the more determined to control him, keep him going, and drive Quell from their inner circle. If this was a fairy tale, we’d discover that the Dodds are a pair of enchanted toads desperately afraid that the magic allowing them to pass as human would wear off any second and Quell would be the Jack who comes along to steal their gold and break the spell.
Of course it’s not magic that keeps Dodd Dodd. It’s a combination of will and ego. Dodd’s ego is so great that it encompasses everybody who gets close to him. Whole crowds can be trapped within it. It’s a very nice trap. More of a house than a cage, and Dodd treats his prisoners as guests and sees himself as their host, and as host he’s obliged to show them a good time. But Quell is a threat because the whole basis of a self-help movement is that it helps, and while Dodd’s other disciples are willing to pretend they’re being helped, Quell really needs help and may be beyond it even when offered by traditional and legitimate sources. If the Cause can’t cure Quell, then maybe everyone will realize or have to admit that the Cause isn’t a cure at all. What really worries Peggy is that her husband is beginning that he can do it, that he can save Quell. More worrisome is that Dodd might actually want to save Quell because he likes him. And even more worrisome still is that Quell is the only one who doesn’t know Dodd’s a fraud and that Dodd is being tempted to abandon the family who only pretends to believe in him and replace them with the true believer.
All of the above should be read as qualified by “I think.”
This is what I think is going on in The Master. And it’s what I think now that I’m thinking about it in order to write this review. It’s not what I thought when I was watching the movie.
What I thought when I was watching the movie was, What the…?????
All my reviews are qualified by “I think.” But I can usually refer back to the movie or the book or the TV show I’m reviewing and point to a specific scene or a line of dialog or a shot or a passage that caused me to think what I think. I'll have evidence I can point to to support my interpretation.
Not the case here.
I feel like I'm making it up as I go, desperately replaying the movie in my head and asking myself, is that was what was happening in that scene? Is that what that line meant? Is that why Anderson placed that shot there? Am I remembering any of this correctly?
Maybe I should go back and watch it again?
Good movies should bear repeated viewings. But they shouldn't need to be seen more than once for the audience to get them, let alone enjoy them. You should go back and watch a movie again for the fun of it, not to double-check your work to make sure you didn't get an answer wrong.
While I was watching The Master, frustrated and confused and developing a headache from trying to figure out just what I was watching, I kept telling myself, This is all from Quell's point of view, right? That's why it doesn't seem to make sense, because it doesn't make sense to him?
But then the skeptic inside me began to take over.
I don’t think that’s it, he said, I think that it's not just Dodd who's making it up as he's going along, it's Anderson too! The whole movie is a work of improvisation. He's not a genius. He's a madman who's fooled his cast and crew into thinking he's a genius and playing along.
But the perpetual grad student in me objected.
No, that can't be right. The movie is too well- crafted. There's obviously a great deal of thought behind every shot, every scene, every line. The Master is a commentary on cults, remember. Anderson is showing us how it works. This is what it is like to have a con artist like Dodd playing with our heads. He'd keep us off balance like this! He'd withhold crucial information. He'd have us totally confused but have us expecting that pretty soon it will all come together and then we'll understand!
Or, replied the skeptic, He's put us in the position of the woman waking up from her trance.
How so? asked the grad student naively.
Well, said the skeptic, She wants the experience to have been real. She wants the Cause to work. She wants Dodd to be what he pretends to be, what she's paying him to be. She's one of his patrons, right? Her money's riding on him being the Master.
So, even though she knows she wasn't really hypnotized, that she didn't travel back in time, and that she was probably just dreaming, she tries to pretend the experience was real. She gives the answers or at least tries to give the answers she thinks he wants her to give. But there are no right answers, because he's making it all up. But he's clever enough to know that she's more likely to convince herself that her own answers are correct than simply accept any answers he feeds her.
So you're saying Dodd's manipulated her into helping him make it up?
And that's what Anderson's done to us, manipulated us into helping him make The Master mean something?
It's what I'm thinking.
Go ahead, say it.
The Master, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Laura Dern. Now in theaters.
If you live in our neck of the woods, The Master’s playing at the Downing Film Center in Newburgh through Thursday, October 4th. Advanced ticket purchase recommended.