EVER WATCH A MOVIE WITH A FRIEND, and then have a conversation that makes you wonder if the friend actually paid any attention during the movie?
That’s what I felt like when I sought out reviews of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. After recently watching the 2012 film, I was seeking some clarity. More so than any of the other three Anderson films I’ve seen – Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood – I felt like I wasn’t quite grasping the film’s message.
The reviews I found – many by the big names (or big-name media outlets) – seemed to confirm that everyone else was pretty much as lost I was. That surprised me some, but I think that, in a way, is a tribute to The Master. It wasn’t an easy three-act piece all tidily wrapped up in the end, and it left plenty of room for interpretation.
What really surprised me, though, was that, in some instances, these big names were completely missing on obvious stuff. For example … late in the film, Freddy leaves Lancaster Dodd, aka the Master, and his Cause acolytes to return to his old home town. The trip is a disappointment, and he ends up sleeping in a movie theater. A theater employee arrives with a phone. It’s the Master, calling Freddie back into the fold, telling him to cross the Atlantic and meet him in England. Then there’s a cut, and it shows Freddie, still asleep in the theater as if nothing happened. THAT’S BECAUSE NOTHING HAPPENED. It was a dream.
In two separate reviews I perused, two different reviewers acted as if the phone call actually happened. Because, of course, the Master just hopped on Facebook in post-WWII England, saw that Freddie had checked in to the Regal Theatre, then Googled the phone number so he could give his pal Freddie a call.
Is that what these reviewers thought (or, to give them credit, something significantly less ridiculous)? And even if they did, did they not watch the rest of the film? Because even if there was confusion on that point, Freddie himself clears it up in his final meeting with the Master, saying he came to England because of his dream. There’s plenty of obfuscation and unclear subtext throughout the duration of The Master, but on this point, the movie is clear.
THE BEST REVIEW I came across was by Roger Ebert. Ebert makes a couple of points I think most of the other reviews I read missed. First, he isn’t willing to automatically assume that there’s an undercurrent of homoeroticism here. There’s a time or two – particularly in their last meeting – where I felt that vibe. But I don’t think it’s obvious throughout the movie that the two leads being in love is the case. To me, it feels like each admires (admiration bordering on jealousy, in some instances) what the other is. Dodd sees in Freddy a man who is truly free, no family obligations, no wife, anonymous, a man who acts on impulse, fear, rage, joy, a person who can truly live in the moment. Freddy sees in Dodd the American Dream, a man with a beautiful, doting wife, a family who loves him, a man who is respected for his intellect, a gentleman at ease in every situation, a success.
What Ebert also nails is The Master’s greatest problem: “The Master shows invention and curiosity. It is often spellbinding. But what does it intend to communicate?” What, indeed. With There Will Be Blood, Anderson seems to show us through Daniel Plainview that, to be a success in a hard world, one must be hard. Plainview sacrifices everything non-material – relationships, opportunities, his very soul – to get every material reward he can, to one-up or destroy everyone who would deny him his success. In Boogie Nights, Dirk Diggler is much the same, unable to keep any stable relationship – whether love, friendship or family – because his pursuit of fame overwhelms all, actions mirrored by nearly every other member of his porn clan. Here … is it beware false prophets? Is that it? Despite an absolutely amazing performance by Joaquin Phoenix – who manages to verbally encapsulate a man lost and bewildered, physically showing his constant discomfort, both because of his war injuries and his seeming inability to fit in anywhere – as well as solid showings by both Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, it’s unclear what the takeaway is. As stunning as The Master is, that lack of a solid base ends up being what undercuts it all, a sense uncertainty for the viewer that doesn’t fade even with introspection.
DON’T GET ME WRONG: I’m not one of those viewers who needs every little thing laid out for them. I don’t mind uncertainty. But I need to feel that there’s a point to that uncertainty.
Take another film about a cult: Martha Marcy May Marlene. It has similarities to The Master: top-of-the-line performances by Ashley Olsen and John Hawkes, a story line about a cult and a general feeling of uncertainty about what is real and what isn’t. Olsen’s character, a lost girl who takes up with a cult, then realizes she’s in over her head and runs to live with a distant sister, lives in a constant state of uncertainty: What is real? How do I behave? What now? Is the cult coming to get me, to get my sister, to get revenge? And the way the film is shot, past and present run together, reality and hallucinations are confused. The ending is even left hanging, open, threatening. But the nut of it is there: What happens to those who belong nowhere, to no one? How do those who can’t find their place in society make their way?
Which, come to think of it, could be the one consistent theme of The Master. But over the course of the film, that gets buried, lost, tossed in with a bevy of other ideas to be mulled, but never borne out. For all of its wonderful qualities, The Master as a whole is somewhat frustrating.