There Will Be Blood came out in 2007 to immediate fanfare. Instead of focusing on a huge ensemble cast, Paul Thomas Anderson turned the camera onto a small, intimate portrait of a man consumed by greed and power. TWBB acted as a metaphor for America’s economic and political growth as it relates to the rest of the world, and Daniel Plainview’s actions mirrored those of wartime America. The film had its fair share of controversy surrounding its depiction of religion and its uses in small-town America.
However, when I watched the film, I knew that this wasn’t the last time we’d see religion used as a tool in an Anderson film. I could tell that this was an issue he felt strongly about, and that his next film might go even deeper into that world.
Sure enough, in the following year, it was announced that Anderson’s follow-up would be focused on Scientology’s beginnings. Flash forward a few years, and it seems like every week Paul Thomas Anderson is defending his film as having almost nothing to do with Scientology but focusing more on faith itself. I believe that Anderson’s film was inspired by the religion, but I’d have to agree that the religion itself means very little to the message of the movie.
Like There Will Be Blood was about power and greed in America, The Master is about religion in America. This is why the protagonist isn’t Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic, charming, confident leader of “The Cause,” but Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, in the performance of the year), the lost, alcoholic, masochistic war veteran who joins up. It doesn’t matter what the religion is. What matters is the faith of the people who believe in it. And, to Anderson’s credit, Freddy Quell is the ultimate lost sheep. He is the ultimate believer. And we get to see true faith through his eyes, even if it means watching that faith die inside of him.
The Master follows Anderson’s evolving cinematic style down the rabbit hole. Composer (and Radiohead guitarist) Jonny Greenwood returns with an eerie, dread inducing score that loops back on itself arrhythmically, forcing the audience to understand the world as Freddy sees it. The camera always lingers on the negative space between characters. It wanders in and out of focus without meaning or direction. Characters enter and exit the frame without interest. We are inside Quell’s head. We see what he sees, and it’s not pretty.
You could say it’s not an entertaining movie. It’s really not much fun to watch. It’s an intimate portrait of a man who is wholly an outsider. We don’t understand him because we don’t know enough about him. We know he was in the navy. We know he was once in love. We know that something terrible has happened to him, and that he now has to cope with that memory by drinking anything he can get his hands on. But we don’t know him. We’ll never know him.
The film isn’t much interested in telling a narrative. It’s more interested in showing us a snapshot of two lives that, by chance, intervened and smashed into one another. After accidentally killing a man with a powerful cocktail, Quell sneaks onto a large ship as it sails into the ocean. On board the ship are the members of “The Cause,” a radical new religion founded by Lancaster Dodd, a self-described author, professor, mathematician, and theoretical philosopher. Quell is quickly discovered and sent to Dodd’s cabin, where he is questioned and allowed to stay on the boat. Dodd is infinitely warm and accepting of Quell.
Quell wanders the ship and absorbs information about the religion of those on board. He understands that he’s in the middle of something strange. Dodd sits Quell down and asks if he’d like to participate in “processing,” which is an interrogation that begins harmlessly and then moves into something much more disturbing. Quell transforms into a believer on the ship before it ports. Finally, after years of searching, Quell has found somebody that accepts him.
However, like all changes of heart, the grace period evaporates quickly. The happy life that Dodd promised isn’t as consistent as he was told. The outside world isn’t respectful. The questions hurled at his leader are difficult to answer. Dodd is no longer confident outside of the ship. He becomes angry with outsiders. Quell’s faith diminishes in the wake of American life, and he reverts back to who he was before.
Anderson’s film is cyclical, mesmerizing, upsetting, disturbing, accurate, and surreal. And while it isn’t all that much fun to watch, it is certainly fascinating enough to keep you on your toes. And while there may not be any characters you root for, they are so well-written that you always believe in them. The Master challenges ideas of faith and religion and loneliness and acceptance, and it does so be giving us archetypes. Quell is the ultimate lost boy, wandering the Earth in search of meaning. And we want him to find it, but a lost boy is defined by what he doesn’t have.
The Master contains exactly what I look for in a movie. It doesn’t spoon-feed answers to its audience. The photography is beautiful and strange. The music doesn’t force a mood, but accentuate it. The end doesn’t wrap anything up. It forces you to finish the movie yourself. The Cause isn’t confirmed or denied. It just exists within the world of the movie. Lancaster Dodd isn’t right or wrong. He’s both. He’s neither. He’s a man. He’s a coward. He’s a folk hero.
The film is too strange for any real Oscar candidacy, but you’ll be sure to find this movie on my year-end list. Joaquin Phoenix delivers one of the great American performances here, and the movie is worth watching just for that.