Igor Valentic’s review published on Letterboxd:
Alas, we: all riffraff, purposeless souls lost wandering down directionless paths, wondering upon splintered rafts floating across vast ocean vistas beneath the halo of cosmic panorama. Time (always) irrelevant, if not meaningless. For history (now) is mere fancy, was written by authority, mass-produced for the sympathy of the weak. Tall tales of association, suppression, subordination, obedience, domesticity, order; civilizations made from servants searching masters searching servants, ad nauseam. Everything ended by revelation, then revolt: the father abandoned by the son, disconnected. Oaths tarnished, torn; enemies born, sworn. Maybe all the pretty little pieces will fall into their rightful, tight places; the Suns, as foretold, might align. But probably, in the last throes of death, within that last breath, we will whisper: a prayer for the next life.
Narratively, Paul Thomas Anderson’s (written and directed) 2012 feature The Master is about WWII navy vet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), released into the “responsibilities of peacetime.” Disassociated by experience: boys who became killers, then fuck-repressed soldiers jerking off on foreign beaches; cradling mothers made of sand. Men scoring perfect tens on pussy-obsessed Rorschach tests, tagged and released: “snap back to reality, whop! there goes gravity.” Welcome: dysfunctional members of society, where jobs come and go but the alcohol stays, as a constant – and poison if not drunk right. And no matter how they might try to exist in their preordained polite and tightened square-shaped boxes, the pushing and slapping is inevitable. To be chased from their nation. Citizenship without town or family, and all their little everythings – from shame or otherwise – deserted and forgotten.
When Quell awakens (once after a particularly inebriated outing) upon the ship (read: will) of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an unusual bond develops between rascal and lord. Both men are possessed by inadequacy: one without answers, the other hording all the questions (wielded as weapon). A struggle for dominion fastens the bind; tightened by overlapping cycles of rejection and acceptance.
The Master is, thus, essentially a battle of wills, cemented by its two powerhouse lead performances. Of particular note is Phoenix, who (one mustn’t forget: is and will be one of the most celebrated actors of his generation and this millennium) – in what was his first “real” performance post-I’m Still Here (a four-year Hollywood-hiatus during which Phoenix and Casey Affleck committed to making a faux-documentary hoax mocking the film industry and celebrity culture) – shed completely his bloated appearance and unveiled Freddie Quell as an emaciated wreck of a man. His jarring, astoundingly physical transmogrification is an acting master class; most particularly with regards to his hunched, almost humped, stance and the way his speech and facial expressions are affected by a clenched, jammed jaw.
Matched by Hoffman’s charismatic, domineering performance as “the basis of cult,” war is waged during “some informal processing” (a therapeutic technique that manipulates its subject via hypnosis). Dodd starts with a command (say your name. [x5]) and then begins a rapid-fire sequence of questions (are you thoughtless in your remarks? do you linger at bus stations for pleasure? do your past failures bother you? [x4] is your life a struggle? is your behavior erratic? do you find it easy to be fair? are you often consumed by envy? are you scientific in your thought? are you concerned with the impression you make? are you usually truthful to others?). Quell’s answers, initially bullshit and insincere, are challenged and controlled: “if you blink, we go back to the start.” Dodd then raises the stakes: do you often think how inconsequential you are? do you believe that god will save you from your own ridiculousness? have you ever had intercourse with someone inside your family? have you killed anyone? do you regret this? where is your mother? Quell blinks, back to the start. Repeat: are you lying? No. Are you a liar? Yes. What are you running from? To wit: Quell breaks. Bullshit becomes sincerity, and is exposed to be all that is human: confused, insecure, regretful, inadequate. Truth is mined, exposed; and the dream is relived: “Recall a word.” Quell remembers: “flowers.” Of love abandoned. The soul routed. “Can you recall a word?” Quell says: “away.” Man chained, leashed: now, roll over, sit, “good boy.”
Despite the earned weight and drama of The Master, Anderson is not (and never has been) a director without an absurdist sense of humor. Though Anderson never laughs at his characters, there is an explicit, definite situational comicality. For example, post-processing – which is possibly the most well-written and executed sequence in PTA’s acclaimed filmography – the two men share a fag and drink, jocosely reminiscent of post-coital indulgences. Even within the high drama of the processing sequence, “are you unpredictable?” is answered with a fart joke. Or later, when Dodd’s “will of one man” is asked to defend itself, Hoffman’s (to be noted: is another of our most fine actors, rest in peace) all-time greatest, single-line deliveries is an explosion of immature, insecure rage: “Pig Fuck!”
Or the way Peggy Dodd (a forceful, assured Amy Adams) reasserts control over her husband via a violent reacharound handjob. Or post-incarceration, the men reunite in a glorious bro-hug and roll on the ground as if long lost reacquainted best buds (nay, lovers?). Or Quell’s own form of passive-aggressive processing: “I was on a ship that got thirteen battle stars and won the war. What’d you do dummy?” Or Cult 101, which teaches us that “… if the applicant is young, tell him he's too young. Old, too old. Fat, too fat. If the applicant then waits for three days without food, shelter, or encouragement he may then enter and begin his training.” Or something like that. Maybe make the applicant walk back and forth across a room between a wall and a window, in front of all, eyes closed, and demand he articulate what he feels. On and on until the will is broken, and the application process is ended at the whimsy of its Master; the member – grateful that his undeserving humiliation is over and his (upon rational reflection) ridiculous test passed – now belongs to the family.
Aside from its weighted, layered thematic content, The Master is also, importantly, a technical marvel: made of many parts into an immaculate whole. Shot on 70mm, Malaimare’s photography is crisp, lush and vibrant; effectively setting 1950s Pacific America. Supported by fantastic set decoration (Amy Wells) and costume design (Mark Bridges), Anderson uses a few early, well-staged tracking shots to soak the film in its time and place. Johnny Greenwood’s score is never intrusive, but always defining and expanding. The performances, as aforementioned, are introspective and vividly realized for it. Anderson’s script is specific but without easy outs. Though an exploration of a finite relationship it is about THE infinite totality of mankind's experience, the entire scope of all civilization and society; from animal to enlightenment: “he (pointing at the sun) told me (pointing at himself) to tell you (pointing at the other) to give me (pointing back at himself) yours.”
But, as inevitably as a son will leave the father, a servant will leave The Master. It will always be – because of its very act – the one who leaves that will haunt The Master. Out of envy, he will love “the sailor of the seas,” free from restraint, “you pay no rent,” the first in history owned by no man and no thing, free to find “that landless latitude,” that plane of higher existence: void of manipulation, indoctrination, subjugation.
The Master, though, can’t help but ask the servant to stay. The servant, mind made up (from character revealed), has found the courage – despite his love – to reply, quietly: “maybe in the next life.” The Lion’s wounded pride retorts: “in the next life, I will show you no mercy.” So, in smiles and tears, the lamb leaves “on a slow boat to China” and the story ends where it started: a lost soul cradling the sands of remembrance.
For no man is free from another. In this life or the next.