A tear slowly creeps down your cheek. You’re not allowed to blink, otherwise you will have to start the series of questions again. The questions are repetitive, but quickly become merciless. You’re supposed to answer them without fear or hesitation. The man seated at the other side of the table calmly asks the questions with devastating precision. He calls himself ‘a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all, a hopelessly inquisitive man.’ He asks if you believe God is going to save you. The dials are moving on a tape recorder. You finally blink. Your name is Freddie Quell.
This is the first ‘processing’ scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest mind-bending opus, The Master. At this point in the film, we don’t know a whole lot about Freddie. In an earlier scene, he’s a drunken seaman performing sexually explicit acts on a sand-sculptured woman; in another, he’s a sharply dressed photographer working in a popular department store. Like the film itself, Freddie is an enigma: he keeps us on our toes because we’re never quite sure whether he’s simply a boozy, sex-crazed deviant, or a deeply traumatised drifter.
In a similar vein to Anderson’s ganguraian and thought-provoking There Will Be Blood, The Master has generated passionate discourse between critics and cinephiles. The secretive and long-gestating project, loosely inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and the origins of the movement, premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year to a mixture of rapturous acclaim and Kubrick-esque bewilderment. The film chronicles the relationship between Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman); a Hubbard-like figure whose ‘religion of religions’, The Cause, offers answers to those with questions that extend beyond their own mortality. Freddie quickly becomes swept up in Dodd’s delusions of grandeur, which are fuelled by the charismatic leader’s fiercely protective wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), and a legion of loyal followers post World War II.
A genuine auteur of the modern era, Anderson’s evolution from rambunctious upstart to one of the greatest working behind the camera has come from a constant refusal to be pigeonholed within the Hollywood system. Even his most accessible films, such as the neo-noir thriller Hard Eight in 1996 and award-winning drama Boogie Nights, are bursting with genre-breaking energies. However, if the first part of Anderson’s filmmaking career was dominated by youthful exuberance and mosaic storytelling, the second has been defined by calculated detachment and mastery of the form.
The gears that made these earlier films spin so fast (the postmodern trickery, heart-wrenching songs and incredible ensemble casts) are nowhere to be found in The Master. The film is instead powered by hallucinatory visuals, unnerving soundscapes and intimate character drama. As critic Jason Bailey stated in the Atlantic, ‘the giddily participatory camera of Boogie Nights has been replaced by one that is almost anthropological’.
In an oeuvre populated by cocaine-addled porn stars (Boogie Nights) and cold-blooded oil tycoons (There Will Be Blood), one of Anderson’s most surprising and appealing filmic trademarks is the way he captures the intricacies and nuances of the father–son dynamic. The characters that inhabit these roles, however, rarely do so in a conventional sense: the young male protagonists are often exiled drifters, haunted by the past, crushed by lingering debts and manipulated by their surrogate fathers.
In The Master, this kind of fractious dynamic develops between Freddie and Dodd. At first, Dodd appears to be everything that Freddie is not: Hoffman plays a middle-aged megalomaniac with impeccable charm; he’s clear-eyed and radiates confidence. A big fan of Freddie’s homemade hooch (which includes everything from torpedo oil to paint thinner), Dodd invites the unstable ex-Navy officer to stay with his friends and family on his luxurious ship as his ‘protégé’.
Yet this does not quite spell the beginning of a beautiful friendship. While Dodd uses Freddie as a guinea pig to try out his pseudo-scientific techniques, Freddie just hopes the psychological tests are more effective than those he took in the military (where every inkblot he was shown only made him think of genitalia). These ‘processing’ scenes provide some of the most exhilarating moments in a film that boldly manages to conquer the seas of cinematic greatness: Dodd uses his intrusive interrogation techniques to explore the disturbing history of loneliness, alcoholism and incest that has festered in the dark recesses of Freddie’s mind.
The fascination that builds with Freddie’s post-war psychosis also fittingly occurs as we begin to learn more about the inner workings of The Cause. Built supposedly on ‘67 trillion years’ of studies, The Cause rejects psychoanalysis in favour of ‘exact science’. Anderson uses Hubbard’s metaphysical theories from Dianetics as a template for Dodd’s movement: followers are required to process the ‘whole of time’, to realise that they have lived many lives, and more importantly, to exorcise any impulses that have been passed on by ‘invading forces’. What Hubbard defines as ‘auditing’ in Dianetics, Dodd calls ‘processing’ in The Master.
While the cast and many critics have resisted accentuating the links to Scientology, the similarities between Dodd and Hubbard – at least in terms of the origins and principles behind their respective movements – serve a fundamental purpose. Anderson taps into Hubbard’s notorious past not merely from a vested interest to condemn the founder or ‘religion’, but as a means to explore the dark side of the American Dream in the early 1950s. The Master is predominantly a portrait of a flawed writer who thinks he holds the keys to the secrets of the universe: Dodd promises enlightenment to those anxious for stability in a post-war America saturated with indeterminacy.
Shot in stunning 65mm format, Anderson’s film is a meticulous homage to the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood filmmaking. Beginning at the end of the silent-film era in the late 1920s and lasting through the 1950s, this marked a time when celluloid was truly alive and well in America. People flocked to see stories from the likes of John Steinbeck and John Huston on the big screen, which, like The Master, feature anti-heroes desperately attempting to escape the aimlessness and despair that consumed everyday life after the bloodshed of war.
Anderson has spoken fondly about his fascination with the connection between the turmoil in this period of America and the sudden emergence of alternative spiritual movements, declaring it ‘fertile ground for telling a dramatic and engaging story’. But while The Cause brings Freddie and Dodd together in The Master, it also tears them apart. Freddie is captivated by Dodd’s grandiose stories about time travel and fearsome dragons, but when it comes time to repress his primeval urges, he’s not as easily convinced. As Freddie, Joaquin Phoenix projects a level of unbridled intensity rarely captured on film; his sunken, bloodshot eyes and nervous twitches are those of a certified madman. It’s quickly apparent that Freddie may not have the capacity to completely change: he’s too busy running from the past.
From the moment Dodd and Freddie meet, comparable to when Sydney offers John a cigarette and ticket into a world of high-stakes gambling in Hard Eight, we know this is a friendship not going to go the distance. Dodd is not drawn to Freddie’s ‘dashing mischievousness’ because he’s met him before in a ‘past life’ but rather because Freddie reflects his own true character, stripped of its veneer. In the few scenes when his charisma and verbosity isn’t enough to convince Freddie or the lingering sceptics, Dodd’s world- weary face dominates the frame, and it is here that we see the mask slowly slipping away.
Like the ever-fluctuating moods of maniacal prospector Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, Dodd is a character who tantalisingly offers more questions than answers. Less a conniving huckster and more an insecure man tragically sinking under the weight of his own hubris, Dodd’s only defence mechanism against scrutiny is to attack. This is particularly evident in a scene where Freddie and Dodd are arrested (Dodd for embezzlement, Freddie for fighting the police officers) and held in neighbouring prison cells. Reminiscent of a wild animal in captivity, Freddie explodes into a psychotic rage, chewing on mattresses, smashing a toilet and screaming for Dodd to finally speak the truth about The Cause. Dodd stands calmly throughout this, alternating between reciting religious rhetoric and scornful reprimands until Freddie crumbles into a broken mess.
Since The Dirk Diggler Story (a short mockumentary released in 1988 which later became the blueprint for Boogie Nights), Anderson has demonstrated an uncanny ability to make profoundly idiosyncratic films that explore the human condition, lingering in the mind for days, weeks, months, even years. Many of his films released in the 1990s, such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia, exploit the bright lights and burnt-out dreams of California, a contemporary metropolis where sex and violence lurk under a smokescreen of glitz and glamour.
While The Master is a profoundly self-assured, meditative piece that flows with the strange moods of Freddie and Dodd, Boogie Nights and Magnolia offer a kinetic fusion of melodrama and hyper-realism. With an Altman-inspired scope, Magnolia’s series of interconnected stories set in the San Fernando Valley over the course of a single day concludes with the threat of biblical apocalypse, as a plague of frogs descend from the star-swept sky. It’s a brave film, gushing with emotion.
Anderson’s approach from the turn of the century has boldly evolved from the panoramic to formalistic; his narratives now more tightly controlled and less forgiving. In all his films, however, there is always a conscious attempt to manipulate cinematic rules and rhythms: where the wonderfully weird Punch-Drunk Love attempts to obliterate the preordained formula of the romantic comedy, There Will Be Blood gleefully strays between historical epic and gothic horror.
The Master just might be Anderson’s most challenging and mesmerising film to date. The complex relationship between Freddie and Dodd always remains a whisker beyond our complete understanding. What begins as an uneasy alliance beneficial to both parties quickly turns into an inextricable source of great affection and frustration that resists any semblance of conventional resolution. Against a backdrop of cultural upheaval and spiritual exploration, Anderson frames Freddie and Dodd as best friends and mortal enemies. They both represent the fire-breathing dragons from Dodd’s wild fantasies who can never be tamed.
But in the final scene of the film, Anderson presents us with one last strange, paradoxical twist. Freddie, in the middle of satisfying his long repressed sexual urges, stops to ask his young female companion some ‘questions’. There is a hypnotic rhythm as Freddie repeats the questions: he’s processing his ‘subject’, but for the very first time we actually see him in control of a situation. Has the disciple finally become the master? To quote a haunting line from Magnolia, ‘we may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us’. The Master is a film that never stops asking questions.