The Master

The Master ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Seen it before, of course. Loved it before, of course. And yet watching Paul Thomas Anderson's extraordinary epic of post-WWII America for a third time made me feel like I'd never seen this film before.

What was good before is still good here; the three convulsive, phenomenally detailed central performances, the luscious, deep shadows and almost Technicolor tones of Mihai Mălaimare Jr.'s astonishing 65mm photography, the massive fistfuls of detail and character beats Anderson pulls up from his prodigiously learned screenplay. From the first shot of Joaquin Phoenix's hapless alcoholic sailor Freddie Quell chopping fruit, it feels like you're coming into the arms of a great novel.

And then there's the new stuff, the stuff I didn't notice before. For all that Anderson's dialogue is always very naturalistic, he fits some very precise writerly craft in there; listen out for Freddie telling a minor character he reminds him of his father, and think about what how it foreshadows what we later learn about the life of Mr. Quell. I love the peculiar little turns of phrase some of the characters have, which tells you so much about their internal world. I can't say why it feels so perfect when Amy Adams's nightmare zealot Peggy Dodd caps an icy rant with "It's a grim joke!", but it does.

Dodd is the wife of H. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a gregarious socialite and cult leader whose attitude towards his own work - crudely put, does he believe this shit? - is the film's key enigma. He is absolutely nothing like Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, no sir, not one bit, and the utter lack of a resemblance was a key talking point when the film came out.

As with Magnolia, there's a fair bit of material of Fortean interest stuffed into the pockets of this film, including past-life regression, brainwashing and a curious, offhand reference Lancaster makes to invading aliens, which is rather wonderfully never followed up. I wondered whether the event that brings Quell into the Dodds' orbit was also a paranormal reference; ufologists use the term "the Oz effect" to describe how people who believe themselves to have been abducted by aliens never manage to remember passing from the Earth into the craft, just as Quell walks past the Dodds' boat, then wakes up to find himself on board. It all adds to the feeling that something is not right here, even in the more mundane stretches of the film.

In a column in Sight and Sound, Brad Stevens indicted Anderson and Steven Soderbergh as being uninterested in classical mise-en-scene. Watching The Master again I realised how unfair this was. Anderson does a lot to set out the character of the leads with camera angles, posture and set design; think of the first scene with Laura Dern, in which key character relations are set up purely from where the characters are sitting in relation to each other. Think of Peggy, naked and cradling her pregnant belly, watching with dismay as her husband passes back and forth in front of her singing to a clapping crowd, or the way Lancaster is usually positioned in the centre of a busy, cluttered frame at a low angle.

Lancaster, in short, is the centre of his surroundings. Quell is photographed quite differently; usually at an angle rather than head-on, and often in front of a door or a window. This is what led me to the biggest breakthrough of rewatching the film. Lancaster is beguiled by Freddie because he's so in touch with his natural emotions, which indicates a certain hypocrisy, since his cult is all about transcending them. Where Lancaster is rooted to place and possessions, Freddie can go anywhere, do anything.

And he does. On previous viewings I found the long scene in which Freddie is 'broken' through repetitive questioning and exercises utterly chilling. It still is, including the subtle yet remarkably disturbing image of Peggy's irises turning black. But at the end of it he says he's free to go wherever he wants, though he chooses to stay. And then, not long after, he does go away. Then he comes back for an afternoon with the Dodds in their creepy English school. Then he goes again.

This is, to put it mildly, unusual behaviour for someone who has been brainwashed by a cult, and the fact that Freddie can hop in and out of the Dodds' grasp so casually can only mean that he isn't brainwashed at all. He really does stay because he chooses to - the Dodds can tell him about himself, they value him in a way that no-one else does, and they channel his violence towards something that he feels is productive. He enjoys all of these things. Then, when he stops enjoying them, he just picks up and goes.

Partly Lancaster's behavioural conditioning is ineffective because Lancaster himself is so useless; Hoffman quietly but purposefully makes it clear that there is a blustering, insecure man beneath his megawatt charisma, and as the late scene with Freddie asking 'processing' questions to a woman he's sleeping with makes clear, rather than 'cure' him Lancaster has only made him a more efficient drunk, womaniser and brawler.

But the real reason why Lancaster fails to make a mark on Freddie is because his methods rely on a certain vanity, an ambition, a desire to raise yourself above the common herd, and many other things that Freddie does not exhibit at all. There's a lovely bit where the Dodds go hustling for money at a rich lady's party, Lancaster regressing her through her past lives with the creepy, gerontophiliac attention of Zero Mostel in The Producers. These are the Dodds' people, not Freddie. Freddie doesn't want to be led, he doesn't care what people think about him, he doesn't want the secrets of the cosmos, he doesn't want anything from life beyond the next drink and the next screw. He is the perfected, natural man Lancaster's entire process is geared towards creating.

He's also a failure.

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