An elevator full of dysfunctional characters, what could go wrong?

Without the spectacle that stood in for accessibility in There Will be Blood or Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson here engages a quieter and potentially more profound exploration of another element of human, particularly masculine, nature. PTA is one of the best living filmmakers and The Master maintains that reputation more than adequately. It’s a masterpiece of tension and character, delivering astonishing craft both behind the camera (one of the best shots I’ve seen this year) and in front of it (performances like wow).

It will be a difficult movie for most people to get into. Especially if they have little appreciation for or openness to performance. Film Crit Hulk often insists that acting is a thing that everyone talks about but few understand or appreciate fully. I’d say that The Master is one of the movies that feels like a reward for people who know good acting when they see it, and might even be a source of discovery for those who haven’t developed an affinity for it. In other words, The Master is an “actors’ movie”. I mention this because it’s the chief point of access for the audience. You engage with everything else that’s going on through the consistency and quality of the performances.

People already think that Joaquin Phoenix is one of the good ones. Accolades are going to be heaped on him for this performance anyway.

Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a Navy seaman who drifts around after World War 2 making moonshine and getting into trouble. He’s a ball of intensity, physically hunched over and moving around in a twitchy gait like the shuffling of a person never entirely sure where they’re going or where they are. That’s Freddie Quell. He not only represents but, due to Phoenix, embodies a level of life and awareness that is a step above the animal and no higher. This is important.

We spend a bit of time getting to know Quell. We see that he’s a competent man, but also a high functioning alcoholic with severe self-destructive tendencies. By chance he ends up on a boat on loan to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, true to form and tremendous), his wife Peggy (the always awesome Amy Adams) and a coterie of followers. All are part of Dodd’s movement, The Cause. For this portion of the film, The Cause remains mysterious but it is quickly revealed that Dodd is a version of L. Ron Hubbard and The Cause is proto-Scientology. Something in Dodd responds to something in Freddie and they form a relationship that is seemingly predicated on Dodd’s fondness for Freddie’s moonshine. It actually runs a helluva lot deeper, though, and the contours of this relationship are not only the focus of the film, but also how all the underlying philosophical concerns are explored.

The film is never preachy, for or against Scientology, though Dodd winds up a preacher who can’t stand to be questioned.

Rather than being stuffy, The Master is naturalistic. Organic. We watch as Freddie drinks his way around the fringes of this community while they remain contained on the boat. As we watch, a defining characteristic of Dodd and Freddie’s friendship emerges. A lot of people have called this a movie about the love between two men and there are many parts that suggest this. My significant other put it more astutely. She pointed out that rather than a romantic bond, Dodd and Freddie are really more like a dog and its master. This nicely ties into the title and is supported by the way Dodd treats Freddie. He says “naughty boy” or “good boy” and wrestles with him on the ground. Not only is Dodd’s affection for Freddie like that of a man for his dog, it also elucidates the symbolism of their relationship.

Dodd is the higher thinker. He calls himself a hopelessly inquisitive man. He is trying to take the muck of the human animal, as he sees it, and elevate it into something higher. In that, he is no different than most philosophers or humanists and certainly no different from religious leaders throughout history. Really, The Master is at least partially about the formation of a religion and why religions form at all. Especially cults of personality where one man is thought to hold all the answers. The impulse toward religion, or spirit, is wrapped up in the pursuit of meaning. Viewed that way, it really doesn’t matter that The Master is using Scientology. That’s part of the setting, the backdrop. The point is much richer, much less specific to any one cult or religious movement.

In some ways, Freddie is a release valve for Dodd’s own “animal” nature, a part of himself that he suppresses and is locked into suppressing by the people he has surrounded himself with. Not least of which being his wife.

Freddie, on the other hand, is the wild man. The animal. He is a product of the stuff Dodd wants to save people from. He therefore becomes a sort of totem, an example of how Dodd’s pseudo-mystical beliefs and quasi-scientific psychobabble might actually help save someone. If he can help Freddie, he can help anyone. But the movie gives us enough reason to believe there’s more to it than that. Dodd makes noises about Freddie’s role as protege case, but there’s something else that binds the two of them. We’re seeing Dodd at the climax of his formative years and what attracts him to Freddie is the narcissism and hedonism of an unbound life. Dodd’s Cause has begun to take up a life of its own. People have expectations. Freddie brings a simpler enjoyment and, via one dynamite sequence where he gives Freddie an “informal processing” that yields to a kind of catharsis, validation.

This is where Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic comes in. It’s been a while so bear with me:

Hegel was trying to explain how the achievement of full self-consciousness would lead one to the absolute knowledge, what Hegel called Spirit. This is the very thing Dodd is trying to get at and it could be that his failures come from a lack of that self-consciousness. I’ll come back to that. To talk about how a person gets to self-consciousness, Hegel came up with a philosophical story about two people meeting. Mutual recognition is what fosters self-consciousness but our instinct is to dominate when we recognize other selves at all. In The Master, Dodd tries to dominate Freddie and never realizes that domination prevents Freddie from being free enough to recognize him as a consciousness.

A truly hilarious scene.

The tragedy is that neither man is able to change the other. Freddie remains an animal, free but unable to rise above base desires and impulsive, destructive behaviors. Dodd comes into his fullness as the leader of the Cause with his wife staunchly behind him. Their final, somewhat heartbreaking scene, solidifies that Dodd has become synonymous with The Cause. Previous to this, he released “Book 2” which contains inconsistencies with his previous work and shakes the faith a bit. The implication is that now the bullshit is in service to itself, the chance to get at anything true or lasting has been lost.

Without Freddie’s recognition, which always seems at the edge of occurring, Dodd can never fully get there. This whole movie is a dramatization of an abstraction; the Master-Slave dialectic being the philosophical equivalent to a fable. We’re sort of watching never realizing that this is about whether or not these men will change in response to the other. The movie never explicitly outlines any of this and I think you’d actually need to have a background in philosophy to read this. It isn’t necessary to enjoying the movie, but it does enrich it. Without the Hegel, The Master is still a surpassing work.

Beautiful cinematography.

There’s sort of an undercurrent of menace in The Master that is hard to shake. There are many comedic bits but it’s hard to know whether you can safely laugh. This tension isn’t really derived from this being the kind of movie where anytime now something really bad will happen. Instead, it’s derived from a texture of intensity that is layered over all but a few spare moments of exhilaration, connection, and freedom. All of these are fleeting, replaced quickly by containment and control.

Rather than catastrophes of the body, even with all Freddie’s rampant drinking and fighting, this movie is filled with catastrophes of the soul (if you’ll allow me). Phoenix’s skittishness and inability to connect, core parts of Freddie as a character and a cypher for bestial man, intensify with every setback and disappointment. The humble wants he does have are out of his grasp because he hasn’t the self-direction to achieve them. He hunches over more, folding in on himself like there’s nothing in the center. It’s exactly right and dovetails wonderfully with the few spare scenes where he stands more upright, moves more easily, when The Cause is at the apex of its influence over him.

Doris (Madisen Beaty) is the one pure component of his life. But he runs from it haphazardly, like he can’t recognize either that he wants her or that he’s running.

I’ve already praised Phoenix and he’s really on a whole new level here, but every other actor in the movie from supporting roles to one-sceners delivers their A-game. The level of craft in the performances is aided by the craft of the production. The details of the period are rich and varied, reminding us of all the things that have changed or have remained since the 50’s. The camera lingers on the textures of cloth, the metal of a ship’s underbelly, the vile liquid of Freddie’s homemade “potions” and especially on the fullness of water. Water is sort of elemental to the film, but I’m not sure I quite have my finger on what it symbolizes. This follows from There Will Be Blood which, more so than PTA’s other movies, provides so much texture you can almost taste the film.

Jonny Greenwood’s composing has laid the brick for tension filled movies like The Master as well as There Will Be Blood and We Need to Talk About Kevin. The grating clopping of broken coconuts informs most of the film’s score, keeping everything tense about it securely around Freddie and his nervous, single-minded impulses.

With its attention to character and the monumental quality of the whole of the production, The Master is a no-brainer as one of the best movies of 2012. The philosophical subtext simply enriches this and makes the film sophisticated and ambitious without being pretentious. The only lofty pontification on the nature of man comes from Lancaster Dodd who is mostly wrong when not laughably deranged. All that and PTA isn’t directly criticizing him. There’s a sympathy for Dodd’s aims in spite of his obvious lunacies and inconsistencies. The film loses some of its sensationalist appeal by not castigating one of the most unpopular “religions” on the planet, but I think it’s fair enough. Sensationalism is not the point of a movie like The Master. Nor is spectacle. The point is reflection and observation, the tension between a perceived duality in human nature.

Which, you know, rules.