The Master

The Master ★★★★★

Link to my tl;dr review.

I find it hard to step back and take a critical look at The Master (or any of Paul Thomas Anderson's films, for that matter). Sometimes, films (or albums, or novels) just resonate with you, and you become emotionally attached to them. Sometimes you latch onto them so tightly that it takes years for the joy of the experience to fade and you can appropriately and fairly judge them. Your mind hears other people's criticisms and works to defend them, however tangential, frivolous, and contradictory those defenses might be. That feeling has not yet faded for Magnolia, so I think I've got a few more years of The Master-worship in me.

The most common complaint I've read about The Master is that it is aimless, sometimes confusing and/or frustrating, and, in the end, pointless. I actually agree with all three claims. My defense is that those critiques are actually part of how Paul Thomas Anderson intended the film to affect its viewers. You are meant to feel frustrated and without a clear resolution - just like Freddie.

As much as Lancaster Dodd is the larger-than-life (yet all-too-human and pitiable in the end) focal point of The Master, this is Freddie's story. We are meant to experience the movie through Freddie's point of view. As an animalistic, alcoholic, swept-under-the-rug veteran, Anderson perfectly captures the confusion, frustration, and dejection Freddie lives through on a daily basis and somehow translates those vague emotions into visual and narrative aspects of the film.

The best example I can find is the "window-to-the-wall" scene. Apart from the in-film purpose of clearing Freddie's mind and enhancing his visualization technique, the scene seems to last forever. I remember sitting in the theater and getting physically uncomfortable, wondering if Anderson had lost his touch. It was only later that I realized he had taken Freddie's frustration and desperation for the monotony to end and transplanted it directly into the audience. We are begging Anderson/Dodd to let us stop and move on. We are Freddie.

Another point of contention is that the film goes nowhere; this is also accurate as we are literally left with Freddie exactly where we first met him. I would argue that Freddie's development is not so much a change in his personality, but an altering of his past. Hence, the last shot mirrors one of the first, but the entire perspective has been changed by the 'new' Freddie, shifted into the positive rather than the negative. Thanks in large part to Dodd, Freddie has been able to alter how he regards his entire existence. He was shackled and beaten by society's alternating expectations and obliviousness of him. By becoming his own master, he is able to shed the ever-present guilt over all his previous actions forced upon him by those he had been taught to obey. In the first scene, I felt ashamed of Freddie. By the end, I was in awe of his freedom. His character has not so much progressed as shifted.

The Master is nowhere near as crisp, imposing, and starkly defined as There Will Be Blood. That's good, because Freddie Quell is nothing like Daniel Plainview. In the end, I feel The Master surpasses Anderson's previous work in transporting us into Freddie's mind by utilizing all aspects of the film - tone, plot, direction, score, etc. - to artfully portray his world view with much more subtlety and skill. Asking more of your audience is a hit-or-miss proposition, and I don't fault anyone for not liking the choices Anderson has made here. There are plenty of Todds out there who (perhaps accurately) call out Anderson's cult of personality, but for now and the foreseeable future, I will happily consider myself a member of The Cause.

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