The Master - A Grim Emotional Trip of the Soul

                            Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth film "The Master" (2012) is a majestic work of fiction, something which leaves us with a hard time in grasping the themes in these days of comic book adaptations and remakes. You might have a plenty of questions, regarding what the film, exactly, is about. Whether it is an essay on human conflict? An interplay of troubled souls desperate to find their footing? A burning depiction of postwar uneasiness? A sharp-edged character study of charismatic quackery? May be it's about all the above. And may be there are more hidden themes -- enigmatic up to the conclusion.

                             Anderson's hard-hitting dramas are not for everyone. Even his eight Oscars nominated "There Will be Blood" didn't had any success at the box-office. But if you have eyes for enigma, you can see, his latest, The Master is unmistakably some kind of wonder. At the least, it is an exalting demonstration of movie-making. "Boogie Nights" and "Punch Drunk Love" explored strong and compelling personal conflicts, whereas "The Master" is the strongest of all Anderson's in portraying conflicts, which is between a man completely sure of himself and another who is completely not. Beyond all these, the movie should be watched for two reasons: Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman.


                     Similar to the structure of "There will be Blood", the film starts with Freddie Quell (the most ferocious Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled and tortured World War II veteran whose contrived offensive boldness can't mask the torment he lives with. He loses a series of jobs due to his erratic, violent behavior. On the run from one of his problems, he stows away on a yacht that’s hosting a wedding party. The yacht is commandeered by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who introduces himself as a self-styled “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, and theoretical philosopher. He is on a wedding cruise for his daughter, Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) and son-in-law Clark (Rami Malek). His steely wife, Peggy (Amy Adams) and son Val (Jesse Plemons) are also accompanying him in the yacht.

                          Dodd is "The Master", who has founded a new movement called the 'Cause' with which he claims to help and cure people through mental time travel produced by a hypnosis-like procedure known as “processing.” Master uses Freddie as a guinea pig in his bizarre behavioral experiments. Freddie sees Doddas a friend and soon becomes his disciple. He even practices his own crude style of persuasion by beating the naysayer's. Dodd thinks if his experiments or treatment could work on Quell, they can work on anyone.The the heart of the movie are the scenes, where Dodd and Quell have at each other, especially the situations where Dodd applies his psychological techniques. The struggle that results in those scenes are so intimate that it’s hard to describe in terms of plot development. Slowly, Freddie Quell and Master become ensnarled in an ambivalent, frequently hostile relationship.


                          Though we see Angelic Amy Adams as Dodd's wife, this is essentially two persons movie. Phoenix, who has been missing in movies for some times is back with a vengeance as Quell. He wanders as a baffled prize fighter; His words slur and his face is often a map of lines and worry; and he also seems on the verge of tears. Sometimes he looks so worried that I thought he might kill himself for this role. On the other hand, there is Dodd, portrayed with mesmerizing intensity by Hoffman (in his fifth collaboration with P.T. Anderson). Hoffman's Dodd is a perfect showman and an idiosyncratic thinker, with a gift for language. His character is said to be inspired from the life and times of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. One of the best scene -- showcasing the pairs electric intensity -- happens in the middle part in an incredible single shot of the two in side-by-side jail cells: One man is a frenzy of rage (Quell); the other (Dodd) remains fixed and contained, yet both master and servant are ultimately reduced to screaming children.

                         Even though the cult leader is clearly modeled on the founder of Scientology, the movie is not a veiled depiction of that much-disputed quasi-religious movement. Instead, Anderson’s movie is challenging in its depiction of how leaders and followers feed and feed off each other. In an era, where celebrities are prized above virtually all else, The Master holds a disturbing mirror up to our desire for easy answers and charismatic (but possibly vacuous) leaders. Anderson's direction, once again give us  a dreamlike aura -- much like previous film, There Will Be Blood (2007), which also shares a fascination with interpersonal conflict taken to almost metaphysical levels and obsessive characters who dominate the spaces around them. He often throws you for a loop and jumps in time and perspective, such as a party scene in which all of the women are suddenly naked (a fantasy projection of Freddie’s).

                         Anderson's dedication to immaculate film-making extends to all areas, including the broody music, cinematography, costumes and the editing. If you have appreciated Anderson's elusive style of film-making then you will be more than grateful that it's happened again. "The Master" is a movie of breathtaking cinematic romanticism and an abnegation of conventional catharsis. As a viewer, you might think that it could have given more in terms of comfort, but that's not what Anderson intends to give. We have seen plenty of movies for comfort, where the violent mess of a guy break down at some convenient third-act, assuring that order will be restored. This film never does that. Up to its ambiguous ending, it  forces the question of whether personality change is possible—or even advisable. 

                        PT Anderson's "The Master" uses Freddie/Dodd as a springboard for bringing out larger issues of faith, power, free will, and belief. Despite being transfixed for its 137 minute running time, I haven't fully grasped the movie. I have an urge to return to it and see how it might unfold differently during multiple viewings. Really a compelling, puzzle of a film. 



Jeevan said...

The movie looks quite confusing. Another of those where you'll have to watch it half a dozen times before you understand the full meaning. Your post on this would definitely half the number of times I would need to watch it.

Haricharan Pudipeddi said...

Brilliant review of an equally brilliant film. Even though I watched it already, I might have to watch it again to help myself understand it better. Not an easy film to understand at all.

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Great work, Arun... one of the very few reviews on the internet that does full justice to the movie. Paul Thomas Anderson is undoubtedly one of the best filmmakers alive today.

Also do take some time out to read my review of The Master:

Unknown said...

Good review Arun. Reviewing and feedback is always a diligent requires mastery

We welcome you also to contribute in the passionate learning system

Shareef S M A said...

As usual a great review.. PTA films are always kind of complex.. I haven't decoded There will be Blood fully yet.. I guess The Master will also be same as TWBB.

Arun Kumar said...

@JK, Thanks for the comment. Master doesn't have a confusing plot. It's mostly a straightforward story, but it's hard to get all its meanings in one view.

@Haricharan, Thanks for the comment. I also felt the same after watching it for first time. The movie gets better in the second viewing.

Arun Kumar said...

@Murtaza Ali, Thank you very much. PT Anderson's movies will be hailed like Kubrick's in the future.

Thanks for the link. I will read your review soon.

@Karthik Anish, Thanks for the comment.

@Shareef S M A, Thanks for the comment. I think "Master" is more complicated than "There Will be Blood" in terms of themes. But, do give the movie a chance.

Shareef S M A said...

Arun: I sure will...