At this point, I don’t think we’d be courting too much controversy if we called Paul Thomas Anderson one of the five best filmmakers of his generation. From his late ’90s classics Boogie Nights and Magnolia, to the apocalyptic masterpiece that was 2007’s There Will Be Blood, the man has yet to make a film that falls short of greatness. So it perhaps goes without saying that expectations have been high for The Master, the director’s first film in five years. And once again, Anderson has both met and thwarted our expectations with a film that is oblique, thought-provoking, and beautiful in equal measure. It may not reach the same operatic heights as There Will Be Blood, but the subtle way it probes at deeper questions might make it Anderson’s most challenging film to date.
Situated in Anderson’s larger filmography, The Master is in some ways the natural continuation of a trend that has been developing in Anderson’s films since the early 200os. Where his earliest films tend to feature likable (if flawed) characters who invited our empathy, Anderson’s post Punch-Drunk Love work has shifted towards violent, unpredictable characters that constantly keep us at a distance. Punch-Drunk Love‘s Barry Egan is sympathetic, but the film presents his destructive outbursts in such an alienating way that we observe him more than we identify with him. Anderson took this idea to an even greater extreme with There Will Be Blood, the cinematic equivalent of being locked in a room with a rabid tiger for two hours. There Will Be Blood practically dares us to find any humanity in Daniel Plainview’s embodiment of pure animalistic rage, and the result is one of the most intensely unsettling cinematic experiences in recent memory. In comparison, The Master might seem positively warm and fuzzy, but it’s nevertheless another film that places us into constant close contact with a violently unhinged individual. In this case, that individual is Freddie Quell, a WWII veteran with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He is played by Joaquin Phoenix in a phenomenal performance that has unfortunately been overshadowed in the press by the actor’s own publicly staged meltdown in I’m Still Here. Regardless of any perceived connection to the actor’s own public persona (which itself was a feat of immersive acting, however bad the resulting mockumentary may have been as a film), Phoenix disappears into the Freddie, delivering a grunting, staggering performance that often barely seems human. Communicating primarily through inarticulate mumbles, disarming laughter, and violent outbursts, Freddie is a difficult character to warm to, and Anderson emphasizes the character’s grotesqueness with large closeups on Phoenix’s scarred, glowering mug. On one level, Freddie seems like another specimen of Anderson’s ever-growing menagerie of feral man-beasts.
Yet as unsettled as Freddie can make us feel, the film doesn’t keep us as distant from him as we might initially expect. It’s ambiguous in many respects about his character – the film never flat-out states why Freddie behaves the way he behaves, or why he makes certain seemingly arbitrary decisions over the course of the film. It does, however, give us just enough information to hazard meaningful guesses. We see enough of Freddie’s past to get the sense that he longs for some lost sense of human connection, and enough vulnerability under his compulsive laughter to see a wounded childlike creature underneath his scars. Anderson bookends the film with images of Freddie curling up on the beach next to a naked woman made of sand, an image that suggests volumes about Freddie’s underlying desire to regress back into the womb.
The film is not just about Freddie, however – it centers on Freddie’s relationship with cult leader Lancaster Dodd, an L. Ron Hubbard stand-in played by a grandstanding Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman is a great actor, but he sometimes seems to rely on a series awkward-aggressive actorly tics that can detract from his performances. This is not the case at all with The Master – Hoffman drops all of his usual mannerisms and presents Lancaster as a charismatic showman. In a performance that recalls Orson Welles at his most grandiose, Hoffman plays a man who seems able to reshape the world with the power of his voice. Lancaster is in the early stages of forming a Scientology-like cult known as The Cause, one that promises to “cure” its followers bad impulses through an intense therapeutic/brainwashing process known as “Processing.” Freddie ends up falling in with Lancaster, and for a time he becomes Lancaster’s “guinea pig and protegé,” a test subject for Lancaster’s experimental processing methods. In theory, if Freddie can successfully work his way through the “Processing” trials, he will cure himself of his violent temperament and recurring bouts of madness.
Freddie and Lancaster’s relationship – and all of the questions it raises – ultimately lie at the heart of the film. We don’t know exactly why the usually restless Freddie is so content to fall in with Lancaster’s cult practices for so long, just as we don’t entirely know why Lancaster is so dedicated to keeping the uncontrollably violent Freddie in the cult. But with subtle gestures, the film hints at answers to these questions. On one level, Freddie and Lancaster seem to be using each other – Freddie gets unlimited access to room, board, and booze from Lancaster, and Lancaster gets a test subject who can validate The Cause’s methods to the world. But Phoenix and Hoffman have intense chemistry as performers, and their interactions suggest emotional undercurrents that aren’t directly stated in the script. When we see them embrace and playfully wrestle after a prolonged separation, the affection between the two men seems genuine. Furthermore, Freddie’s fierce commitment to Lancaster’s “Processing” method indicates that he actually does believe in Lancaster’s teachings on some level, just as Lancaster’s staunch loyalty to Freddie in the face of all of his violent transgressions indicates a genuine desire for Freddie’s recovery. In their complex relationship, the line between self-deception and honest human connection blurs beyond perception.
It’s perhaps because of our investment in this relationship that we grow closer to Freddie as a character than we ever did to Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood or Barry Egan from Punch-Drunk Love. We might never understand Freddie enough to know exactly what makes him tick, but we understand him enough to recognize why Lancaster and his cult would be appealing to Freddie. Rather than paint this The Cause in a judgmental light, Anderson presents the cult the way it appears to Freddie: as the promise of a happier, more secure way of living with benevolent parental figures. We sympathize with Freddie’s desire for these things, in part because we identify with this desire. In this way, Freddy’s conflict – whether to listen to the nagging voice that tells him Lancaster is a fraud, or to fully give himself over to the teachings of his friend – becomes a more universal conflict about what people value most in life. Are we happiest with independence or emotional security? Cruel honesty or blind loyalty? Adult agency or childlike dependence? Anderson, to his credit, never gives us answers, and allows the film to end with all of its question marks very much intact.
So says my reading, that is. The film is oblique to the point where many people leave the film and come away with a very different understanding of what it all means. This, however, is part of what makes Anderson such a rarely gifted filmmaker – he provides just enough powerful fragments that we can piece together our own meaningful readings of his films without making us feel like we’re grasping in the dark.
Film Rating: * * * * *
I’ve spoken so far about the film in terms of content, but Anderson’s audio-visual aesthetic is just as essential to his style of filmmaking. At the start of his career, Anderson was famous for his ability to select the perfect song to nail the emotion in any given scene (so much so that Aimee Mann’s songs in Magnolia are organically integrated into the script itself). But after Magnolia, Anderson has taken a sharp turn towards scores that thwart the musical pleasures of his earlier films. It begins with Jon Brion’s kitschy avant-garde score for Punch-Drunk Love, abrasive music that constantly emphasizes the dangerous instability of the film’s protagonist. But the real watershed comes in Johnny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood, practically a modernistic concert work that becomes a separate character in the film. Greenwood’s score is a textbook case of what sound theorist Michel Chion refers to as anempathetic music – film music that seems coldly oblivious to the drama unfolding in the film. Greenwood’s ferociously dissonant score isn’t entirely divorced from the equally ferocious Daniel Plainview, but it churns ahead with complete disregard to what the character is actually doing onscreen. The result is a score acts as a wall of dissonance around the character, a wall that blocks any access to his internal thoughts and emotions. It’s one of the most original and controversial scores of the 2000s, and it sets a high-water mark for the Greenwood’s score for The Master.
As it turns out, Greenwood’s music for this new film isn’t anywhere near as groundbreaking as his music from There Will Be Blood. But with that caveat out of the way, the score is nevertheless a fascinating work that adds great emotional depth to the film. What’s perhaps most interesting about the Greenwood’s The Master music is the fact it is how conventional it is in its approach. Where his score for There Will Be Blood went out of its way to block our access to the protagonist, Greenwood’s music for The Master actually seems to invite us inside Freddie’s head. In this respect, the score is not that far removed from the great psychological scores of Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Taxi Driver) and Alex North (Streetcar Named Desire, The Sound and the Fury), composers who used music to dig into the unseen turmoil churning inside characters’ heads (parts of the score actually remind me of North’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a masterpiece of psychological scoring that Greenwood does well to emulate). The Master‘s score has many facets, but they all revolve around illuminating some aspect of Freddie’s complex internal life.
The composer anchors the score on two primary ideas, one representing Freddie’s schizophrenic madness, the other representing Freddie’s complex relationship with Lancaster. For Freddie’s madness, Greenwood employs vaguely playful atonal passages that feature sharp pizzicato sounds, from harshly plucked strings to piercing notes on the oboe. It’s unnerving music, and it effectively captures the irritable anxiety that Freddie seems to live with. That said, Greenwood is following in a long line of composers to use avant-garde textures and atonal music to represent madness; for all of its experimentation, this music actually shows Greenwood following fairly standard Hollywood conventions .
Far more interesting, however, is Greenwood’s music for Freddie and Lancaster’s relationship. Here, the composer actually introduces a rare note of tenderness into the score. Greenwood reveals the effectiveness of the simplest devices, with strings that gently enter with a sustained major C chord before gradually descending in and out of dissonance. The push and pull between the innocent purity of the basic major chord and the turbulent dissonance gracefully reflects Freddie’s relationship with Lancaster – hopeful and tender, but constantly laced with the potential for doubt and disorder. And just as this central relationship remains unresolved in the film, the music shifts in and out of dissonance without ever firmly resolving itself. It’s brilliantly perceptive film scoring, and it adds great emotional depth to the film.
It’s music like this that ultimately makes The Master such a rich and challenging audio-visual experience. Greenwood might not have recreated the explosion of his last Anderson collaboration, but he’s nevertheless created a profound and intelligently constructed film score. Greenwood has always demonstrated meticulous attention to technique and orchestration, but here he balances that technical precision with searing insight into human emotion. While composers who could balance all of these qualities were not so rare a few decades ago, today Greenwood seems to be one of the few still capable of writing uncompromising music like this. This is perhaps why, while it doesn’t rewrite the book, Greenwood’s score for The Master is one to savor. It balances the suggestion of tenderness with the threat of madness, and like the film, it leaves its central question marks intact right through the end.
Score Rating: * * * * 1/2