The Master and power.

Paul Thomas Anderson is a controversial figure. Some laud him as the greatest contemporary film maker and a potential inductee to the pantheon of cinema, while others remain unconvinced by the former’s enthusiasm, and that’s putting it mildly. Accusations of baseless pretentiousness and lack of coherence, both in thematic and narrative structure, have accompanied the release of most of Anderson’s films. Before I get to discussing the work at hand, I’d like to make clear my own thoughts on the matter. The rules of art are not set in stone. In fact, I’d go even further and assert that there are no rules when it comes to creating a work of art. The writer cannot be held at gunpoint by a set of arbitrary requirements or expectations. Neither can the painter, the singer, the actor or the director. The rules should only exist as a guideline, as a means for the creator to keep in check his or her unrestrained flight of fancy. Bearing this in mind, one cannot fault Paul Thomas Anderson for creating films that aren’t cut and dry. That ask the questions but provide few answers. He engages the audience and challenges it to find the truth, their truth, wherever it may be, whatever it may be. Does a free man need someone else to tell him what is good and what is evil, what is just and what is not? No, because a free man is a thinking man, and the mind needs quandaries and inner debate like an engine needs oil.

So what is the deal with The Master? A great many viewers felt disappointed or confused upon finishing the movie because of what they perceived as a lack of payoff, be it in terms of character arc or closure of the story. But what’s important to note about The Master is that it is not a story as such, it’s a character study that pokes and prods, like all memorable works of art, at the very heart of the human experience, in this case power. Power is an abstract term, I know, but it’s a fundamental component of our societies and has been since the very dawn of our existence. There has always been a leader at the head of the group, someone who’s achieved superiority in one way or another. In primitive societies this superiority stems from the physical abilities and traits of the would-be ruler. In our modern, advanced world the difference between the leader and his followers is much harder to notice, much harder to perceive from the outside. Yes, money and birth factor in, but these two alone wouldn’t be enough to convince a large group of people, each member of said group being an educated, thinking, semi-rational human being with needs and desires of their own, that this particular person is worthy of climbing the ranks and receiving a great deal of influence over the group. And this is where we can learn much about the dynamics of power from The Master.

People are prone to becoming invested in ideas. Whether it be the thought of travelling the world or writing a book, an idea is something that gives purpose to our existence, it’s the driving force behind each of our conscious actions and decisions. But there is a particular set of ideas that is more lucrative than the rest, as evidenced by the creation of countless religions and philosophical schools of thought – those that explain our existence and give us a rough outline of what to expect after death. Fear is motivational, but hope even more so. Even if it isn’t well-defined or expressly stated, hope resides in the mind and heart of each individual with the will, power and opportunity to continue existing. And that is what Dodd, like many religious and spiritual leaders in the real world, offers to the followers of his doctrine. He claims not only that each and every person has lived and died before, but that this process is a continuous loop, as old as time itself. Life, according to him, is as intrinsic a part of the Universe as death. Add to that the fact that the knowledge of your previous lives is lost upon rebirth, and you have a cautiously optimistic theory that provides each person with an endless amount of blank slates and start-overs. This is the basis for Dodd’s cult following. The other important part of his success is he himself. He’s charismatic and well-spoken, fiery and emphatic when needed but tender and mannered when not challenged. His view of the world is that of a visionary, at least in the eyes of those who choose to drink the cool-aid and accept him as their master (quite literally, as that’s his title among his followers). At first he seems to single out potential members of his cult, vulnerable or useful people who he manipulates easily enough and keeps by his side as boot-lickers, body guards or, as was implied by his wife, sex dolls. It is this tendency to surround himself with a group of blind and easily manipulated fools that puts into question Dodd’s committal to his own idea. Does he truly believe in what he preaches? Or does he simply feel an innate desire to be followed and revered? Again, this film does not tie any loose ends. It merely asks and gives out hints, leaving the conclusions to the viewer. But of hints there are plenty. It’s hard to ignore the camera work in The Master, and it is the most obvious way of recognizing the relationship between whichever group of characters is on screen. The actors are placed and presented in certain ways or in certain parts of the frame so as to indicate their importance and their place in the hierarchy, and this is made blatantly obvious fairly early on, during a wide shot of the ship where Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell first meet. As the ship sails, the lower deck is full of people dancing, drinking and laughing. It’s hard to discern any one of them, it’s a large group of people having fun. But just below, on the lower deck, we see a lone couple having a discussion. The woman is seated obediently, staring up at her husband who towers over her and talks down, while a waiter stands a good distance away and tries not to interrupt. This shot shows us not only that power will play a role in the movie, but also that there will be a striking difference between the surface and the substance, between what’s visible to the public and what stays in the family. As the film goes on, we learn that Dodd isn’t nearly as powerful or all-knowing as he would have everyone believe. He isn’t even the strongest and most influential member of his family when it comes down to it – his wife defies and at times even controls him, his son believes him to be a hack. Scientists mock him and run circles around his idea of the way life works and his theory of processing which supposedly induces a sort of counter-hypnosis and permits the subject to become one with time and glimpse their past lives that aren’t actually past, but parallel (because cult ideologies are weird that way). But still, his following grows larger as the years go on, his detractors, as well as eventual inconsistencies in his teachings, remain largely unheard and ignored.

Another visual example of power dynamics in The Master is Quell’s hunched back, which shows that he is neither the leader nor the follower. He takes both roles at different times in the film, never committing fully to either. The hunched back shows that he’s not a kneeler or a ruler, but an amalgamation of both that comes out somewhat awkward and stunted. He comes to see Dodd as his surrogate father, but at the same time he can’t completely come to terms with his viewpoint or the way he runs things. Nevertheless, Dodd recognizes the fact that Quell is much stronger and sturdier mentally than any of his followers and in an effort to once more and for the last time assert his dominance, he tells Quell that, if he didn’t fully commit to the Cause, he would be his mortal enemy in the next life. This is possibly a throwback to Greek mythology, where Cronus realizes the threat his children pose to his rule and chooses to devour and destroy them before they can grow strong enough to defeat him. Quell doesn’t accept Dodd’s influence. At the end of the film, we see him using Dodd’s method on a woman he meets at the bar, further solidifying the point that Quell is a man in the middle of the road between master and mastered.

The Master is an intriguing movie, brilliantly directed and gorgeously shot. At times it even defies some of the most basic cinematic conventions like the shot-reverse-shot dialogue, but it does it in style, in part thanks to astounding performances by Joaquin Phoenix and, one of the greatest of all time, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a great, if somewhat loose, package thematically and visually and a must-watch for anyone willing to experiment with films that push the envelope.

In Bruges and creating sympathy for the anti-hero.

In the vast majority of cases, the idea of a story is to take the central character on a journey. That could refer to a physical quest that leads to changes within the protagonist and his surroundings, or it could mean a spiritual one that either changes the character fundamentally or reasserts his or her preexisting beliefs and feelings. Regardless of the details, the skeleton of a story almost always revolves around one person discovering something about themselves, or about the nature of the human condition, with the latter realization also having an effect on the particular character.

That’s all fine and dandy, but how do you make a viewer, reader or listener connect with someone who isn’t a good person? How do you make a normal, functioning human being empathize and sympathize with a criminal?

In Bruges is the story of two hit men who hide out in, unsurprisingly, Bruges, after a botched job that involved the accidental murder of a child. ┬áThe viewer doesn’t know the backstory from the get-go, so at the surface layer Ray, the younger of the two, just seems like an infantile idiot who can’t appreciate the finer things in life and still acts like a kid whenever things don’t go his way. He pouts, he’s vulgar and his manners leave much to be desired. So how come by the end of the movie the viewer is rooting for him?

The other hit man, Ken, portrayed by the wonderful Brendan Gleeson, is an integral part of it. He’s an older man, kind, well-mannered and well-spoken. While Ray refuses to even look at the beautiful architecture of the town, Ken walks around with a faint smile on his face, stopping here and there to take in the view and admire the beauty of the place. He explores, sees the sights and revels in the atmosphere, all the while doing his best to make Ray see Bruges for what it is – not a prison as the younger man sees it, but a beautiful spot for tourism. Near the beginning we see Ken climbing the Bruges tower and looking down on Ray as he sits huddled on a bench in its shadow, a symbolic scene that illustrates the divide between them not through words, but through picture. Gradually, Ken becomes a father figure for Ray, who comes to respect him in a way that many younger people do when they finally connect with one of their elders. As time goes on, Ray starts smiling, greeting people around him. He meets a girl and they fall in love. Despite his prejudices, he befriends a dwarf that’s almost as grumpy as he was in the beginning of the film. This is the superficial layer of Ray’s path, what even the casual movie-goer can see and appreciate, but the second layer is Ray’s struggle to reconcile his past with the present. To come to terms with the fact that he murdered an innocent child, and to find the strength to become another person and, as Ken puts it ‘save the next little boy.’

One important part of the movie is the flashback to Ray’s first job and last job. He’s in the confessional, speaking to his target, a priest. After a brief conversation, Ray pulls out his gun and shoots the man twice. The priest staggers away from him and opens a door in an attempt to either escape or to make the child in the room behind said door run away. Ray never sees the boy, but instead fires a few more shots into the priest’s back as he stands in the doorway. Once the body falls to the floor Ray approaches the door and sees a little boy with a bullet in the side of his head, sitting on a bench with a piece of paper in his hands. Ray immediately falls to his knees in shock. He stands there, dumbfounded and on the edge of tears, before Ken runs in and drags him out of the shot, but the camera lingers on the two bodies, Ray’s handiwork. It’s important to note that some parts of the movie are seen through Ray’s eyes, and this is one of them. The camera staying behind and ignoring Ray and Ken’s escape from the scene is actually Ray’s thoughts. They never leave that room, he never forgets what he did to the boy. While in Bruges, it seems as if he’s trying to forget about it, but it never works. In one scene he tells Ken he’s had thirteen pints of beer, but he’s still not drunk in the slightest. His conscience is always there, never letting him rest. One night he parties with cocaine, hookers and alcohol and he seems to have all but forgotten about his sin. But in the morning he wakes up alone, Ken gone from their shared room in the hotel, and we see a close-up of his empty gaze and tears rolling down his face. This is a painfully realistic portrait of grief and sorrow, of how they never leave you, no matter how hard you try to hide from them. That morning he gives all his remaining money to the proprietor of the small family hotel they’re staying in and goes to a park. He watches the kids playing for a while and waits for them to leave his vicinity, before pulling out his gun and cocking it. Ken stops him at the last moment, and they have a heartfelt talk afterwards, where Ray breaks down.

The rest of the movie facilitates Ray’s spiritual change – he finds something to live for, he finds a way to forgive himself. He finally wants to live. But let’s take a step back from In Bruges and assess what the movie did to turn Ray from an anti-hero who fat-shames American families in the street and beats up Canadians into a young man who made a horrible mistake but truly wants to turn his life around.

Point of view – letting the viewer inside the head of the character is very important. We see his motivations, his fears, his regrets. The great orchestral score helps convey Ray’s pain and puts the viewer in his shoes. The scene where he kills the boy is truly chilling, thanks to the cinematography and Collin Farrell’s brilliant performance, we see the instant regret in Ray’s eyes, we see a precipitating event that changes the character.

Supporting characters – Ken is possibly the most important part of Ray’s redemption. He turns into a father figure for him, helps his through his toughest and darkest moments and at the end sacrifices himself to give Ray a chance at living out his new life. Ray’s childish behavior is, at first glance, a negative character trait, but looking more closely at the relationship between Ken and Ray, we see that Ray is still practically a kid. He isn’t fit for the world he got himself into and it’s quite possible that he had no choice either (Ray mentions doing what he did for money, no out of rage or hate or any other reason).

Change – it’s important to bear in mind that Ray is an anti-hero, not an antagonist. He isn’t necessarily good, but he isn’t particularly bad either (as the movie itself also points out during Ken and Ray’s discussion about purgatory). Ray goes through several phases before finally arriving at his destination – the desire to live. At the end, it feels as if the viewer’s gone through the same journey and experiences the same catharsis as Ray, making it almost impossible not to feel a genuine connection with the character.

And finally, actions have consequences. For a character to feel believable and to act like an actual human, he or she needs to bear the weight of causality. The accidental murder never once leaves Ray’s mind. It’s a monumental beacon in the sea that is his life and it’s impossible for him to ignore it. Every emotion that he experiences throughout the story is in some way affected by this one event, making him look, feel and sound like a real person, one that the viewer can establish a relationship with.