Late in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 drama The Master, a man with nothing to lose climbs atop a motorcycle. He rides swiftly across the salt flats toward the vanishing point before disappearing completely. We wonder if he knows where he’s going, or if he’s just trying to get out while the getting is good. Either way, he knows how to make an exit.
So does Anderson, whose movies always feature at least one startling scene that either emerges from out of nowhere or leads somewhere completely unexpected. Think the “Sister Christian”–soundtracked cocaine deal in Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love’s amazing technicolor excursion to Hawaii, or the stretch when Magnolia transforms into an all-star Aimee Mann music video.
You don’t see moments like these coming, and you don’t forget them after they do. And yet in what may be the best piece of long-form film criticism I’ve read this year, The Point’s Nick Pinkerton argues Anderson’s element of surprise has become predictable—a possible crutch for a director who doesn’t want to do the grunt work of cohesive, coherent storytelling.
Pinkerton argues that Anderson tends to favor “last-minute gambits” as a way of ending his movies, citing the Biblical downpour of frogs at the climax of Magnolia, and (apologies to the Miz) the skull-crushing finale of There Will Be Blood as evidence for the prosecution. “Where some see derring-do,” writes Pinkerton, “I find a hint of desperation—I get the feeling that Anderson, having painted himself into a corner, is turning to the grand gesture to make his escape.”
I’m of two minds about the argument: It’s basically correct, but also a few years out of date—maybe permanently so. As a film critic in my mid-30s (i.e., of the exact vintage that Pinkerton cites as being in the process of discovering the world of the cinema in the late ’90s), I’ve followed Anderson’s career from the beginning. I snuck into a late-night show of Boogie Nights in high school and felt pretty good about it. From the first spectacular Steadicam shot in Boogie Nights, Anderson’s always been an overbearing talent, and I definitely recognize the gifted, pushy, wannabe New Hollywood striver characterized in Pinkerton’s essay somewhere in all of the films Anderson made between Hard Eight and Punch-Drunk Love—almost a decade under the influence of Robert Altman.
I became a fan through the stunning horizontal vistas and slick Kubrickian editing tricks of There Will Be Blood, a film whose greatness is tied to its go-for-brokeness. But with The Master, PTA finally made a movie that didn’t cop out, break down, or fly over the top. It’s a film about brutally damaged characters that still holds together at every level of its fantastically intricate construction. And, with the possible exception of this year’s splendid, deceptively old-fashioned period melodrama Phantom Thread, which addresses similar themes of control and co-dependence—to the point that it feels like a spiritual sequel—it’s probably his masterpiece.
The Master is easily the most conceptually rigorous art film to ever begin with a joke about an STD. On an island somewhere in the South Pacific, circa 1945, young veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) tells a fellow naval officer about the best way to get rid of crabs: “You take an icepick and you fucking stab every single last one of them.” The imagery and sound design of this opening sequence, with its clustering of shirtless soldiers rough-housing on the beach in a primitive state of grace, nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s “Dawn of Man” overture, but this monolith takes a very different shape. In what may be the single most evocative image of a movie full of stunners, Phoenix’s evidently sex-crazed seaman encounters not a rectangular alien slab but a voluptuous, man-made representation of his heart’s desire: a muddy sculpture in the form of a woman splayed out in the surf.
Sometimes, a screengrab is worth a thousand words. Suffice it to say that there’s an epic novel’s worth of subtext in this tableau, which conjoins several different kinds of desire (sexual want; romantic attachment; infantile need) in an uneasy, unshakable way.
It sets the tone for a film that cuts a wide swath through mid-20th century American cultural history, dealing with the country-wide psychic fallout from the end of World War II and the simultaneous rise of a cult-of-personality counterculture to draw in those stuck on the outside of Eisenhower-era prosperity. But it’s really focused on its main character’s quest to reach out and touch somebody, which is the inverse of There Will Be Blood’s trajectory toward a total, self-annihilating isolation for its monstrously self-reliant antihero.
There are almost no women in There Will Be Blood, but they are everywhere in its follow-up, a logical progression in so far as the earlier film is set at a turn-of-the-century moment when the two main sources of social power—heavy industry and organized religion—both operated according to masculine thrust.
The revelation in The Master that Lancaster Dodd, the L. Ron Hubbard–esque cult leader played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is possibly just a frontman for the passionate rhetoric of his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) is a telling detail. By recasting Peggy as the architect of the Cause, a pseudo-scientific sect modeled unsubtly after Scientology, Anderson makes it clear that his real subject is male weakness, concealed beneath layers of balls-out bravado.
Coming from the filmmaker behind the two-and-a-half-hour boner joke that is Boogie Nights, Freddie’s responses to the Rorschach blots that he’s shown during his stay in an Army psychiatric hospital are amusingly self-reflexive, yet the visual presentation of the interviews draws from dead-serious source material: the 1946 documentary Let There Be Light, a compassionate work of observational reportage which dared to show America’s veterans as fragile, even broken figures. John Huston’s long-suppressed film was commissioned by the Department of War and then withheld from circulation on the grounds that its devastating footage violated the privacy of its subjects. It is included as an extra on the Blu-Ray release of The Master, and Anderson has spoken about how it informed the writing of its own screenplay. “It was that kind of lucky thing that helps verify decisions that you’ve made,” he said in 2012 of encountering Let There Be Light on YouTube.
There is some documentary-style verisimilitude in the way The Master depicts the period’s pioneering psychotherapeutic techniques and the real savvy in how it links them to the Joseph Campbell–style reincarnation guff peddled by Dodd and his Cause. But Freddie’s compulsions seemingly predate his combat experiences. He’s got a Gothic backstory involving incest that hangs darkly over his behavior like a shroud.
Of all the outsiders in Anderson’s oeuvre, Freddie may be the most difficult to get a bead on. He’s not a robber baron archetype like Daniel Plainview or a Jeff Lebowski–like stoner detective à la Doc Sportello in Inherent Vice. He’s truly off-puttingly weird. Phoenix’s sharply etched facial expressions and full-bodied physical acting constitute the best work of his career. Not that such things matter, but he should have won his first Oscar instead of watching fellow PTA pal Daniel Day-Lewis (and Phantom Thread star) snatch up his third for Lincoln. (DDL’s statuette for There Will Be Blood can stay on his shelf.)
The Master works to collapse the distance between Freddie’s bizarre mannerisms and our puzzled response. Where in There Will Be Blood, Anderson kept Plainview at an emotional distance, here we’re plunged into Freddie’s headspace like a stowaway. The film’s most astonishing moments are the ones where we are allowed to see others from his addled point of view.
After getting a job as a department store photographer, he’s distracted by a shopgirl turning languorous circles just beyond his lens; the shot, which tracks and twirls in time with its subject, suggests that Freddie is completely mesmerized by her presence.
This sequence is evidence of PTA’s formal chops and cinephile cred. The song that soundtracks the woman’s dance, “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan,” was written by Irving Berlin and featured in the 1936 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers comedy Follow the Fleet, which is about a seaman who returns home from a long voyage in search of his former lover—a plot synopsis that could also serve for The Master. Freddie is on a quest to reconnect with his “best girl,” Doris (about whom, more later). It’s not just an in-joke, though. Berlin uses the pious language of the New Testament even as Ella Fitzgerald’s delivery is sensual in a way that makes chastity and restraint seem like nonstarters.
The dynamics are inverted when Freddie watches Dodd sing a much jauntier anthem of abstinence called “I’ll No More Go a Roving” at a Cause soiree. Here, Hoffman channels Orson Welles at his most racounteurish, undermining the lyrics of the song with a leering delight; he moves through the frame with the same seductive grace of the shopgirl, but even as Freddie can’t look away, his mind’s eye is playing tricks on him.
The visual language here is derived from Kubrick—Freddie is daydreaming, gazing longingly with eyes wide shut—but it’s also reminiscent of a movie that’s less commonly cited than Let There Be Light when people write about The Master: John Frankenheimer’s brilliant 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate. Set in the same general period and concerning a veteran who gets mindfucked by a very different sort of Cause, its main character is a war hero who gets programmed into being a communist assassin by a cabal of un-American villains headed up by his own mother (Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Iselin sees Psycho’s Mrs. Bates and raises her.) In Candidate’s most famous scene, a group of soldiers hallucinate that they are attending a horticultural society meeting when they’re actually being brainwashed; the staging of the “No More Go a Roving” scene would seem to owe a debt.
The Master is concerned with mind-control in much the same way Frankenheimer’s classic is. The difference is that where Laurence Harvey’s Raymond Shaw is hypnotized against his will, Freddie, whose crippling alcoholism keeps him from holding down a job or staying conscious during a date, is very much looking for somebody who can get Satan behind him.
It’s a central irony of The Master that Dodd, whose well-practiced spiel barely conceals his own fall-down-drunkenness, is at once uniquely equipped and completely incapable of truly helping Freddie. The pair’s pathologies intersect in a sickeningly intricate codependency—imagined, once again, in precise visual terms, in an extended two-shot of them side by side in holding cells—that’s more complex and plausible than Daniel Plainview’s hatred-slash-obsession with Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood.
Plainview is looking for an opponent he can dominate; Freddie’s got an unacknowledged fetish for subjugation. Dodd spies in his newest convert a consciousness so broken that gluing it back together could vindicate his methodology once and for all. This explains why he keeps a man who is so obviously a liability on such a long leash. The long middle section of The Master, which depicts Freddie’s eager indoctrination to the Cause, also takes care to show how much Dodd gets off on—and, to some extent, is totally consumed by—his attempt to reinvent the younger man in his own image.
Their relationship very much anticipates Phantom Thread’s bad romance between a micromanaging artist and his increasingly defiant muse, tensions that are subtly woven into the stuff of drawing-room comedy. Not to deny the trenchancy of Anderson’s critique of Scientology, but the key to getting on The Master’s wavelength is understanding that it’s not a tragedy but a farce (and that the two modes are closer than we’d like to admit).
For example, the scenes of Dodd “processing” Freddie by guiding him into a trance state to confront bad memories are intense and phenomenally well-acted in long, unbroken takes; Phoenix convinces us that the character is digging deep into his subconscious to try to reckon with a family history of mental illness and incest.
Their ultimate destination, however, is a good old-fashioned cartoon sight gag: a flashback to our hero on a park bench with his former sweetheart Doris, who inexplicably towers over him like a giantess while he’s rendered even more childlike by his sailor suit. (Her size is symbol of how large this small-town girl looms over Freddie’s psychic landscape; it also twins her with the woman on the beach.)
Anderson’s gift for staging uproarious outbursts in polite company rears its head when Dodd loses his shit at a skeptical intruder at one of his fundraising events. Hoffman’s pronunciation of “pig fuck” rivals his telephone freak-out as the Mattress Man in Punch-Drunk Love for sheer, cathartic hilarity. A behavior-modification exercise forcing Freddie to wander endlessly between two fixed points in the living room is pure Pavlovian slapstick; despite all his rage, he is still just a rat in a cage. I’ve always said that if I could ask Anderson one question about this movie, it would be if he was listening to Lil’ Jon when he wrote the “window to the wall” scene. But unfortunately, somebody has already raised this point, and they deserve more than 500 views on YouTube.
Even The Master’s outtakes are priceless. Watching Phoenix and Hoffman crack up over the latter’s pronunciation of “Kools” in this deleted scene is jarring because of how easily these two brilliant actors slip into and out of character, but it also shows that they’re attuned to the borderline-outlandishness of the whole Freddie-Dodd relationship. Listen to the background of the clip, and you can hear Anderson preparing his climax. The song on the radio is “On a Slow Boat to China,” which Dodd reprises in the film’s penultimate scene, serenading Freddie—who at this point has deserted the Cause but been lured back for a final face-to-face meeting—in a last-ditch effort to keep his black sheep in the fold.
A grand gesture, to be sure, but it’s completely in character for Dodd, whose performative streak has already been shown to be a mile wide, especially in Freddie’s presence. His song also weaves together multiple dramatic, emotional, and thematic strands; it’s the tangible, tactile knot tying the end of a half-dozen phantom threads. The homoerotic undercurrent of Dodd’s devotion to Freddie is drawn out in lyrics that possessively address a lover; at the same time, the song works in the context of a guru trying to keep a disciple under this thumb. The lyrics evoke Freddie’s time as a sailor (“there on the briny / with the moon big and shiny”) and his stationing in the Pacific Theater during World War II. It’s easy to believe that Dodd is playing mind games even as his outburst hints that, after so many years of messianic nonsense, he’s started to lose his own.
It’s a measure of Hoffman’s greatness as an actor that he sells the song on the ground of calculation and spontaneity; what makes the scene unforgettable, though, are the reverse-shot close-ups of Phoenix’s face as Freddie tries to process what’s happening and why.
“Maybe in the next life” is Freddie’s response when Dodd asks him if he’s willing to stick around, a response so jaggedly double-edged that it draws blood. On the one hand, it implies that he still believes his master’s mumbo-jumbo about spirits and reincarnation; on the other, it opens up the possibility that he sees the Cause and its founder as a joke.
The film leaves off with Freddie, at long last, in bed with a real live girl, Winn Manchester (Jennifer Neala Page), with whom he uses Dodd’s “processing” techniques as pillow talk, showing the apprentice pretending to be “the master” even if neither he nor his lover can take it seriously. This would seem to be a healthy development on all fronts, and the sexual mania fades into playful self-deprecation; “stick it in, it fell back out” he mutters, a minor complication in what seems like a happy ending.
And then Anderson cuts back to the woman on the beach, a beautifully ambiguous gesture that feels out of nowhere and inevitable at the same time. It’s a poetic way to imply that Freddie has found the girl of his dreams ... or else a dismal confirmation that he’ll always be shackled to subconscious fantasies that mere flesh-and-blood stand-ins will never equal.
There is no escape hatch here, for the character or the audience, and the same goes for the tender trap of The Phantom Thread; instead of looking for ways out, Anderson has taken his place as the American filmmaker who pulls us in the deepest.