I would never call these movies bad. They have great elements to them, unfortunately I will never love the film where the whole angle of it is unclear to me and I cannot - or have no chance to - bond with the characters. I can relate to just about any character unless it's a horribly despicable villain. But lately, the protagonists of Anderson's films are either so odd or so unlikable that there is no way you can bond with them. Moreover, their story is always clouded. We don't see the beginning or the end of their journey and we don't know them well enough to come up with reasons and hypothesis ourselves. Protagonists aside, even if there is someone in the supporting cast that you are fascinated with, Anderson never seems to explore those characters in sufficient manner.
As with There will be Blood the protagonist of The Master is a lost soul. While there is something interesting about Freddie Quell in the beginning, as the film kept progressing I was slowly losing interest in his journey. The movie doesn't really dwell into the roots of Freddie's problems. We are given bits and pieces of his story but it's never enough to fully explain - or even begin to explain - his actions, his behaviour and his issues. In the effect not only we don't see the root of his problems, we don't even get to see the resolution. And why on Earth we should care about any of that then?
Freddie is a hopeless alcoholic and it's not even what you would think while reading those words - it's not like the man drinks few bottles of vodka a week. He drinks paint thinner, fuel and other things that were definitely not meant for human consumption. He is so far gone that he has no concern for anything or anyone for that matter. He is sex crazed and extremely violent. He is a complete menace, a loser and a truly messed up person. One day he wakes up on the boat and is discovered by Lancanster Dodd, the creator of the movement - or in another word - a cult, The Cause.
Do we get to see any redeeming qualities in Freddie? Not really. He is sorta turned into Dodd's right hand, The Master's pitbull who defends The Cause quite simply because he sees friend in Dodd and well, he has nothing better to do. I just cannot believe that Anderson made this character into his protagonist. If what Freddie went through would add to something or at least provided some memorable conclusion to the film I would be fine with this, but the way things play out in the movie it's just completely useless. Anderson himself doesn't seem to have a handle on his own story, as the last image of the movie was chosen...because "he liked it". The way things play out it looks like Freddie's journey brought no change, no meaning. Just nothing.
Anderson had a real chance to make a superb movie here - he had these two great characters - Lancaster and Peggy Dodd and this whole plot with The Cause. That would make a fine film - exploring that organization, the man who is seemingly the Master and the woman that controls him and observes his every move, always lurking in the shadows. Unfortunately, they are pushed to the background as we watch Freddie struggle with his life in infinitely less interesting scenes.
The Cause was modeled after Scientology. To be completely honest I don't see it. Yes, there are some similarities in methods but the way The Cause works actually makes it look like a helpful movement. As for Scientology - well that is a dangerous cult. These people are delusional - I don't have much regard for many religious movements, but I respect even outlandish beliefs if they don't exploit the followers and actually bring them hope. Scientology is a menace - I'll call every religion that requires women not to scream during giving birth an insane and disturbing cult and that is exactly what it is..
As The Cause....well the way I saw it, maybe because of Dodd's character, these people had a true calling. Sure there are bits and pieces scattered by Anderson that make us doubt Dodd. But Anderson's agenda here is unclear - I'm sure he had one but his inept writing lost him. Was his plan to make us feel like Freddie? To make us like and trust Dodd despite the doubt? Maybe Anderson was just scared to show the movement in negative light? Why else worry what Tom Cruise thinks of the movie and host a private screening for him?
Well, whatever happened there, Lancaster Dodd is most certainly based on L. Ron Hubbard, infamous founder of Scientology. They share many similarities - they both spread their preaching through books, both had many children and many wives, ex-wives eventually turning into their critics and enemies. The sons of both think they are frauds (something which apparently Tom Cruise hated in the movie, even though it's an actual fact in relation to Hubbard, ding ding ding!). Thankfully the film takes us 60 years back in time. The Master isn't about the current state of Scientology. instead, it takes its lead from the ideas expressed in Hubbard's 1950 book Dianetics. Anderson himself says - "The ideas in Dianetics are fucking beautiful. The idea of recalling past lives is so hopeful, so optimistic, and it's something I would love to go along with". The problem is that it's not really explored in the movie. The subject is brought up but it has no relevance to Freddie, Lancaster or Peggy.
There was actually a scene near the end of the film that Anderson eventually cut out, which showed Quell retracing his steps to a park bench where he had once been happy. Quell lies down on the bench, trying to travel in time; to cast himself back to a golden moment before the war. "Damn it. I should never have cut that scene" - Anderson admitted. He is a director with great ideas but unfortunately at the same time he is also the writer who can't handle his own creations. With that one simple scene at least he would have grounded one of the ideas in characters' actions. Without it the notion feels as misguided as a lot of things in the movie.
As good as Joaquin Phoenix was in this role, I just found it all to be hallow. Freddie's journey is completely meaningless - in the end of the movie he is exactly the same person he was before, maybe with a little of self control, but the last shot - which is repeated form the film's opening - suggests that he stayed the same. What was the point of the movie then? Why spent so much time on a character who is standing still? Of course there are those who argue that people never really change and I have no problems with characters who don't either. But what is the message here? What is the meaning? Why bother with the story of this man?
It's great that Anderson is experimenting but he lost something in the process - the ability to create characters the audience feels for, roots for, cares for. I felt for many characters in Magnolia and Boogie Nights. But his last three films? I'm shocked that the run time of The Master was 140 minutes because nothing really happened. The film kept shifting from Freddie's messed up mind to the practices of The Cause and I cannot stress enough how little came off it in the end.
I'm giving the film a high grade because it's truly commendable what actors managed to do with such nonexistent character development.The main trio did what they can and if the film was a little bit better perhaps all three would get wins from me. Phoenix was amazing and quite frankly that script didn't deserve such visceral and brave work. However, I must say I was more impressed with Hoffman and Adams, perhaps because their characters were infinitely more interesting than Freddie.
Hoffman was truly amazing as Lancaster Dodd - family man, good man, who just wants to help. He was presented in a very sympathetic light - even if the stuff he makes up is a complete lie and he knows it, he does some good with it. He gives people hope and peace and other than for Freddie - he doesn't seem to exploit them. He has flaws - he has weaknesses for certain things and he is temperamental, but I liked his character, which actually got me through the film with the protagonist like Freddie, about whom I didn't care at all.
It's a damn shame Anderson wasted the character of Peggy. She is however in the key scene of the film, a scene which I cannot believe some called "unnecessary". If you think that scene is "unnecessary" I must tell you this - you missed the nature of character dynamics and perhaps even the point of the film. After Peggy senses her husband wants to take a lover, she uses sex to manipulate him into giving up the idea. She is revealed as the true Master here, prepared to do what she needs to keep Dodd in line and The Cause safe and strong.
I found her character to be utterly fascinating. She is like Lady Macbeth, lurking in the shadows, seeing everything and always being two steps ahead of everyone. There are many moments when Peggy is just observing things, always on a lookout for dangers and enemies of the Cause. The fact she is played by Amy Adams, who always looks so innocent, was a brilliant maneuver on Anderson's part. She is also pregnant and the contrast between manipulating, strong woman she is behind closed doors and the caring mother and quiet wife she is in public is great to witness and Adams handles her character beautifully.
I am a bit annoyed when I think how much better the film could have been had it focused on the couple and just moved Freddie to background. I would love to see more of the scenes where Peggy is plotting about what to do to make The Cause stronger. There are even great ideas in place, when in the last meeting between Dodd and Freddie Peggy is sitting on something that even resembles a throne. She is the one who controls the meeting and it's clear she already pointed Dodd in the right direction before Freddie even walked through the door.
Unfortunately, that is all there is in The Master - bits and pieces of what could have been a truly great movie. There are wonderful individual moments, such as Dodd being provoked and confronted about his ideas and Freddie and Dodd arguing in jail. However, I was under impression that Anderson didn't really know what the hell he wanted to do. Some say The Master is ambiguous. I disagree - it's just incomplete. There are whole story arcs here - like the one with Freddie being in love with teenage girl - that are quite simply so bizarre and so dull I fail to see what Anderson was trying to achieve here.
Anderson is not much of a writer, but he is a fantastic director. The film is wonderfully directed and the cinematography is beautiful - it definitely has its own, unique ambiance. Johnny Greenwood's score goes well with the film and helps to establish the mysterious, slightly unnerving feel of the story. It definitely looks and sounds great, but it's one of those movies that remind you that while everything else can be perfect you really can't go far with weak or nonexistent story.
The Master has unusual hypnotizing quality to it - there are scenes that would normally be dull but because of the way they are handled here you are completely sucked in by the film's atmosphere. Watching the film is like observing black and white spiral going round and round - you keep looking, you can't take your eyes of it but at the same time you have no idea why. There is one crucial scene with the processing session where Dodd is asking Freddie questions and Freddie is not allowed to blink. Curiously, if you blink during watching the film you can miss something too - in one moment Peggy asks Freddie to turn her eye color into black in his mind. And for a brief second Amy Adams's eyes really do turn black.
Just like with Life of Pi this is a movie where any efforts to find answers are futile. In Life of Pi it's kinda obvious what happened and what is the purpose of the other story in the film. In The Master the script is so incomplete and devoid of any higher meaning you really shouldn't waste your time on figuring out things. Is this a romance story between two men? Is it father and son dynamics? A man and an animal? Well, to be honest - I quite simply don't care.
And if there is depth in The Master I failed to notice the first time around it's still not a great movie. Why? Because great movies left us shaking in anticipation till we see it again, till we get to dwell more into that story. It's not one of those movies. I'll most definitely rewatch that one in the future but it has nothing to do with the story or even the film itself as a whole. It's all about the actors. And while for many of you watching this movie may be tiresome, bizarre and frustrating, the three leads deliver absolutely superb performances that make it into a journey worth taking.
The Master (2012, 144 min)
Plot: A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future - until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams