Editor’s note: Although a film like The Master does not lend itself to spoilers, it is necessary to state up front that, in as much as spoilers can occur for such a movie, there are spoilers in this post.
I was prepared for P.T. Anderson’s The Master to be quite bizarre. It’s safe to say the experience was even stranger than I expected. Talking over what we had seen afterwards, I eventually said to my wife: “I don’t think I can honestly say that I like that movie.” And my wife simply replied, without judgment: “What’s there to like?”
That’s my question. What is there to like about The Master? True, one can’t find fault with the technical work here. It looks beautiful and is wisely constructed, the music drives the film superbly (of course, thanks, Johnny Greenwood), the performances are absolutely perfect. Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the Master and Amy Adams as his wife are particularly inspired. Joaquin Phoenix’s posture alone is mesmerizing. But this is P.T. Anderson. These things are no surprise.
And, anyways, those are just the individual parts. What about the whole? Is there even a “whole” in any traditional cinematic sense? I’m trying to think of the film as a whole, to read it somehow. As a text, a thing, a movie. If you don’t know about The Master, it’s quite an experience.
The film opens on the naval officer Freddy Quell returning from WWII, in a hospital for soldiers suffering the mental illnesses of war. He is deeply affected, and deeply addicted. He concocts his own drink in beakers and basements, from toxics like paint thinner, chemicals for developing film, whatever is at hand. After the war he is a drunken nomad, always on the move after another violent outburst.
He finds his way on to a ship that is commanded by the Master. The Master is, we all know, based at least in part on L. Ron Hubbard. In The Master, the Master is Lancaster Dodd. He has created a cult religion he calls The Cause–based on the notion that existence is trillions of years old and humans can ‘time-travel’ into their previous lives to gain a true understanding of the universe, and apparently cure ‘certain kinds’ of leukemia. He has a small following consisting mostly of his wife, his children, and one or two others. And, for reasons difficult understand and that will play out for 2.5 hours, Freddy.
The Master is the story of the relationship between Freddy and Lancaster. Early in their relationship Lancaster tells Freddy that Freddy will be his guinea pig and protege. That’s an unsettling beginning, but Freddy, it seems, craves the steadiness of the calm sea captain that the Master provides, and Lancaster seems intrigued by Freddy as well. Perhaps Lancaster needs to feel admired. Or, perhaps converting a lost soul like Freddy will convince Lancaster that The Cause has actuality. Or, perhaps Lancaster is only the con-man Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays him as, and he sees an opportunity in Freddy for his own gain. Maybe Lancaster falls in love with Freddy. For whatever reason, the two men become intertwined.
So that’s the The Master. At least, kind of. That’s some of it, a barest scratching of the surface. And more than that, it is difficult to provide.
I don’t know how to read this film; I thought I was up to the challenge. Anderson’s previous works are favorites of mine, Punch Drunk Love and Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. All of them are challenges in their way, rewarding if not troubling to audiences. But those are films I can read, and depart from at least with a sense of direction.
As a viewer of The Master I was uneasy. Like any film, I tried to invest in the characters, on some level. I know Lancaster is a swindler, but I didn’t really dislike him. I didn’t despise him the way I despised Daniel Plainview, but neither do I find any reason to like him or relate to him. Anderson never seems interested in his viewers getting close to Lancaster Dodd, seeing him as anything other than a man who has decided to create a religion and make himself the Master of it.
I also don’t particularly like Freddy Quell, either. Freddy is not a bad man, and he clearly struggles from mental illness and delusions. But again, I don’t find Anderson asking us to sympathize, or invest. This is one of the difficulties of The Master. How do we become engaged in a film whose protagonists we don’t care about? Amy Adams plays the wife of Lancaster. She’s a true-believer and as such is likely the film’s saddest character. Her story is clearly one of a hard life, and to hear it would be a sad tale. But we don’t hear it. I only cared for her in a fleeting manner, as though she embodies a sad song.
Without the personal investment, then, I tried to read the film as a story on religion. Does Lancaster believe in The Cause? It seems highly unlikely. But this story is about the very germination of a seed that would become a religion. Nothing is yet here, so, really, what does belief even have to do with it? Can you worry about true-believers before you even have a congregation? One of the greatest images of the film comes early, as the members of The Cause are attending a high-culture New York party, spreading the word. There is a confrontation. Eventually, everyone involved in The Cause leaves, and they all fit in a single elevator. Riding off into the night, as they came, a few souls out to do the Master’s work.
Surely the Master doesn’t actually believe The Cause is real, in that moment, on the elevator ride of embarrassment. Equally unlikely is that Freddy buys into the silliness of the religious aspects. But Lancaster’s wife does, and several other women and at least two men seem to as well. Time-traveling to our past lives? That’s absurd. Lancaster’s son knows this clearly. He tells Freddy right from the start that Lancaster just makes it up as he goes. Of course he does. Yet they are all still there, by Lancaster’s side, defending and supporting him as he goes about preaching The Cause. I don’t know why.
So, I tried to read broadly, metaphorically. For a while I thought the film was about being human and what being a human might mean, that Freddy is human and Lancaster wanted to be more than human. Freddy is humanity at it’s most biological. He wants to fuck women, drink, fight, and that’s about it. Lancaster is humanity’s most cunning and, in some ways, logical. He creates something meant to elevate the meaning of human life beyond the reality that is before us, to enlighten and enrich our lives, but also to make himself great. He becomes a Master. In this reading, the story is about the enlightened man taming the wild beast through that oldest mechanism-religion, and the inevitable failure that accompanies such an endeavor. You can dress the wild animal like a man, but if the master is threatened, the beast comes to the surface and defends him like a territorial animal. Put the animal in a cage, and it will rage until it puts itself to sleep. This attempt fails too, however, when Freddy, of his own accord, walks away from everything. Or does he? I don’t know.
And so, I replay the film in my mind, unable in any way to read The Master; and as such, I can’t find much to like. And yet. I am still here, up until 1 am on a working night, laboring through the incoherence, clinging to the notion that there is a way to read The Master. I sit here in the middle of the night, like Lancaster’s son, convinced that there is nothing inside any of this, but unable to depart.
It feels like there has to be a way. I think it has to do with one haunting image that I cannot escape.
The Master is a film, in at least some respects, about belief. And for one brief moment, the audience is forced to ask ourselves: Is The Cause real? It comes during an exercise meant to bring Freddy’s ferocity under control, when the wild animal is finally being tamed. He is staring deep into the Master’s wife’s eyes. She says to him: “This will help your concentration.” She asks him: “What color are my eyes?” He says: “Green.” And they are green. Then, she says: “Turn my eyes black.” We see her face, up close, filling the screen. She says: “What color are my eyes?”
Freddy says: “Black.” And they are. They are black. Like death.
It is the only moment in the film that requires the audience to question our own understanding of this clearly false religion, of the snake-oil man named Lancaster Dodd, of everything that has happened. Freddy does have delusions, or dreams, or visions. We know this from the start and we even see some. But this moment doesn’t seem to be one of them. This is a moment when you have to for at least a second ask: what just happened? Was that real?
Maybe that’s the question. Was this real?