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.