Rated R for aggressive, uncomfortable sexuality. There's some mild violence, but it is uncomfortable violence. There's just a bunch of creepy behavior happening throughout the film, ranging from language to drinking poisonous material. The Master really lets you sit in some uncomfortable stuff throughout the film, so be aware of that. R.
DIRECTOR: Paul Thomas Anderson
Out of all of the major works by Paul Thomas Anderson, this is the only one that I hadn't seen. There was a time in my life when I would get the inside scoop on the major things coming out. I would go to small indie movie theaters with a tiny popcorn and relish seeing something that wouldn't be talked about until the Oscars. The Master was probably a bigger movie than I gave it credit for, but I also had a newborn at the time. I was a new dad and I know that I couldn't just tell my wife that I HAD TO SEE THE NEW PTA! Sure, just because I'm a monster doesn't mean that I'm a monster. A few years later, once The Master hit Netflix for the first time, I --for some reason --thought it would be a good idea to watch this movie when my parents were in town to visit. Within the first few minutes of sexual deviancy, we decided to go a totally different direction. Regardless, this movie has been sitting on my watch list for a while now and I'm glad that I finally got to it.
I'll be honest, I think PTA is in a different phase of his artistic career, veering away from the stuff that I really dig. The Master probably hits me in the same place that Phantom Thread does as opposed to There Will Be Blood or Boogie Nights. Like Phantom Thread, The Master rests almost entirely in its characters and its vignettes. As opposed to being a linear story with a definitive beginning, middle, and end, The Master is more about this really odd and toxic relationship between Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd. Both characters are extremely hard to relate to. Freddie seems very mentally ill. He exists in this odd sexual sphere where he has these compulsions. He is attracted to underage girls and comes across as fairly gross. Coupled with this sexual deviancy comes this penchant for violence. It could be read as a character who has an extremely short temper with rage issues, but there's a scene early in the movie that almost counters this. He's a portrait artist and there's a guy he just doesn't like. So he starts a fight with him. Freddie is just a messed up mental health case. Perhaps it's a very specific form of PTSD, but Freddie genuinely can't interact and cooperate with society. He's then coupled with Lancaster Dodd, a cultish figure who, according to his son, is making up an entire religion around himself.
I read somewhere that PTA showed this movie to Tom Cruise. Because Anderson was inspired by the origins of Scientology, he wanted apparently to avoid burning bridges with the star of Magnolia. If Dodd's religion is inspired by Scientology, it isn't very flattering of the movement. But on the other end of the cycle, it isn't as damning as it could be. It's odd watching how someone who is so screwed up could end up following someone like Lancaster Dodd. Dodd is a charming guy. (Note: I didn't realize how much I missed Phillip Seymour Hoffman, especially when he has something impressive to work with.) Dodd seems less like a cult leader and more like a father figure who has all of the answers. There are moments where we see the facade slip, but most of the movie just a cool dad. He's a guy who really thrives because of his way to comfort people with his "tough-but-fair" attitude around him. It's odd that Freddie climbed so quickly within the ranks of this movement, but it also makes an interesting story seeing how made up psedo-science can fail someone who doesn't follow the traditional social cues.
Like I mentioned, the movie is almost told in the form of vignettes. These vignettes give us more of a peek into the world of cult following. Sometimes, Dodd's movement seems fairly harmless, interested in the affect of past lives on the present. As a devout Catholic, I get that some of the things we believe and choose to believe can come across as crazy pants. While I have no belief in past lives or anything like that, there are things that I totally accept as truth that sound crazier. But then there are moments where we see Dodd, the man, peek through. We see this flawed guy who loves being the center of attention create chinks in his authoritative persona. There's the scene when everyone's singing in the house in Pennsylvania. Every single woman in the room is nude. Not one dude is naked. It's this guy who loves justifying what he wants against the message of his movement. I wasn't sure what the movie was exactly going to be about when I watched the trailer in 2012. I wasn't sure if this was going to be a question about whether Dodd was the real deal or a scam artist. Instead, there are these moments that tell us that it is more complicated than that.
Part of me wants to believe that Dodd believes his own gospel. His son, Val, straight up tells Freddie that he's making it up as he goes along. But Val always is there. He's there, in England, when the movie is ending. Dodd seems so convinced that what he's speaking is true. When he's arrested and Freddie is losing his mind, look how calm and collected he is. He's literally being silenced by the government. He knows what that looks like. It's perfect for him. Juxtaposed against Freddie's hair trigger, he has this perfect image of the martyr. But look how that compares to when Laura Dern asks him a very simple question about the semantics of his book. He loses his mind. He's a cannon, just like Freddie. Maybe that's what brings the two together. Freddie acts as a reminder for what he really is. They share that love of poison that they drink together. He refers to Freddie as an animal when he laughs or fights or farts. It's probably why he misses Freddie so much when he leaves to find his formerly underage girlfriend. There's something so very cold about Dodd in England and that's probably because he doesn't get his sense of superiority over Freddie.
It's really interesting that everyone hates Freddie except Dodd. His wife doesn't want him there. His son-in-law, who might be the most brainwashed of the entire group, keeps bringing up evidence against him. Dodd's actually kind of right with his reasoning about keeping Freddie around. If Freddie doesn't need spiritual help, who does? It's odd that the conversation leads to borderline torture for Freddie. His walk between the window and the wood panel is so revelatory for both Freddie and Lancaster. If the major accusation by Val is that everything that Lancaster does is made up on the spot, Freddie's trials might indicate that Val is accurate. Freddie walks back and forth, doing takeaways from each until he is mentally broken. If Lancaster wants Freddie to lose sense of reality, Freddie's last comment after Lancaster frees him reminds us that nothing that Lancaster says or does is real. It's not the answer that Lancaster wanted. But since he already pulled the plug on the exercise, they both double down on what they want to believe. It's interesting.
I can't believe the cast of this movie. I know PTA really casts the heck out of his movie, but every major actor is in this movie. It's insane. It's not my favorite out of the PTA films, but it is insane how much is going on with the movie.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.