Francisco Lo sees traces of John Ford and Albert Camus in the best film of 2012—Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.
Very little is revealed about Freddie Quell before the end of World War II. Freddie, the protagonist played by Joaquin Phoenix, is on the verge of completing his deployment and is shown going through a series of mental health assessments in the first act. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson diabolically alienates any causal audience by introducing him in the most unflattering light possible—making lewd jokes and masturbating at the sea. The Navy man is a self-destructive alcoholic who makes a pass at any object that resembles the female body. This walking Freudian specimen meets his match when he stumbles onto a ship captained by Lancaster Dodd—a leader of a spiritual and faux-scientific movement called The Cause. Played by Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dodd—the eponymous “master”—is instantly intrigued by the erratic Freddie, whom a self-proclaimed Renaissance man like him has little in common with at face value. Long before The Master was released, there was already plenty of chatter about the uncanny similarities between Hoffman’s character and L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. In fact, Anderson made no secret that many of the ideas and practices behind The Cause is derived from Hubbard’s Dianetics, though his film is nowhere near as critical of Scientology as the tabloids have presumed. The role of the cult in The Master is similar to the role porn plays in Boogie Nights—it simply serves as the milieu of the characters but not as the thematic center of the film.
At its core, The Master is about Freddie’s numerous failed attempts at connecting with the rest of humanity. Without divulging much on his experience at war and his relationships with his family, Anderson leaves it up to the individual viewer to interpret Freddie’s current actions, which allows more room for empathy as each viewer is more likely to project his/her own personal experience in the absence of context regarding to Freddie. Doris (Madisen Beaty), the girl next door from his hometown, is the only shred of Freddie’s past that is presented to us through a few snippets of flashbacks, which are also the few fleeting moments that shows us a gentler side of Freddie. Her love for him is the purest thing that has ever touched him. Even though he never wrote back, her wartime letters were what kept him alive when he was sent overseas. For some untold reasons, Freddie avoided the woman he loved, only finding himself filling his void in vain—be it his passing fancy for the girl at the department store, or the father-son relationship he yearned for at the farm. In the latter sequence, when Freddie runs through the door of a shed as a mob of angry migrant farmers chase after him, that doorframe shot is identical to the one at the iconic ending of John Ford’s The Searchers, featuring John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, who—like Freddie—is also a broken war veteran incapable of expressing any emotion but anger. While Ethan finds meaning in revenge, Freddie leads a life without direction and acts as recklessly as he desires. His impulse-driven lifestyle and disregard for societal rules make him a perfect fit for philosopher Albert Camus’s description of “the absurd hero”— one who is aware of the contractions between humanity’s search for reason and our unreasonable world and frees oneself by accepting this situation. According to Camus, the absurd hero rejects earthly conventions and values action above contemplation. To bystanders, Freddie may seem like a wretched soul, yet he is a freer man than most, at least in a Camusian sense. His presence disrupts the contentment of the Dodd clan for his violent outbursts mirrors Peggy’s calculated rage while his unhinged libido appeals to Elizabeth’s (Dodd’s daughter, played by Ambyr Childers) forbidden lust.
This is where Dodd comes in. Despite his family’s dismissal of Freddie as an unpredictable liability who will cause disharmony within the group, Dodd is fascinated by the madness of Freddie’s methods. In truth, they are two sides of the same coin. Dodd is a man of hubris who believes he can tame the dragon that a wild man like Freddie unleashes so freely. Freddie is the perfect guinea pig to prove the healing powers of his system because unlike his animalistic disciple, Dodd believes he can transcend our human nature, our suffering and our past lives to a state of higher consciousness. This clash of two opposing worldviews sets up an unexpected bond between the two men. Although Dodd’s intentions are not entirely noble, he reaches out to Freddie sincerely when everyone else has given up on him. Anderson draws a great parallel between Freddie’s experience with the military’s psychiatric debriefings and his later treatment with Dodd. Odd questions have been asked in either situations, but while the military personnel fail to connect with Freddie, Dodd manages to break through the enigmatic young man’s resistance. Their relationship is lot deeper and more complicated than that of the master and the protégé. Freddie has never been this vulnerable to anybody after he left Doris. In some strange ways, Dodd fulfills the part of him that yearns for human contact. Doris and Dodd each have a scene where they serenade Freddie with a song, though the mood is considerably different. Perhaps he deems himself unworthy of Doris’s purity and innocence, but sees something entirely different in Dodd’s singing (which I do not intend to spoil here). Phoenix and Hoffman share some of the most electrifying scenes in any movie I’ve seen in 2012. Under Anderson’s unorthodox pairing of close-ups and 70 mm film stock, there is great emphasis on Phoenix’s captivating bodily contortions and Hoffman’s impressive ability to blush on cue. Anderson values the way its actors’ physicality enriches the film. You’ll have to see it on the big screen to marvel at how Joaquin Phoenix’s wrinkles work in mysterious ways.