‘The Master’ Is a Study in Displacement

[25 February 2013]

By Jesse Hassenger

The Blu-ray release of The Master includes “Let There Be Light”, a 50-minute John Huston documentary about World War II veterans returning home and attempting to deal with their emotional trauamas. We see, in grainy black and white footage, the faces of World War II servicemen undergoing psychiatric evaluation for what the documentary describes as “peacetime neuroses” – shots (and language) echoed briefly at the beginning of The Master as WWII veterans are lectured about taking charge of their “nervous conditions”. In the documentary, many of the men are mumbly, distracted, and evasive, without ever quite shutting down fully—not unlike Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), the damaged vet at the heart of The Master.

The inclusion of “Let There Be Light” alongside The Master provides a major cue when sorting through writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s intentions for this fascinating, sometimes elliptical film (as if gingerly acknowledging its technical impressiveness without wanting to formally endorse its creator, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated the film’s three most prominent actors for Oscars while ignoring Anderson himself). Though whispered about as a film tackling Scientology, Anderson’s real subject is Freddie, a soldier turned drifter and prodigious alcoholic—his Navy training has included a course in mixology, making cocktails out of jet fuel and photochemicals, among other toxic substances.

Freddie stumbles into contact with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of the Cause—the movie’s sort-of stand-in for Scientology. The Cause’s mythology, as delivered in confident, true-believer monologues and faux-therapy sessions by Dodd, is by turns triumphant, sinister, and impenetrable, but the inner workings of a cult seems like more of a passing interest. The movie only occasionally departs Freddie’s point of view; we catch glimpses of Dodd’s relationship with his followers and his prim, steely wife Peggy (Amy Adams) piques curiosity, the particulars matter.

What matters more is how a rootless, self-destructive man like Freddie can gravitate toward (and repeatedly buck against) the rigidity of the Cause’s version of healing. Perhaps, as with alcohol, Freddie needs the harder stuff: jet fuel instead of liquor, cult instead of religion.

Through Freddie’s wandering, Anderson gives us a darker side of the baby boom: not everyone who came home from WWII moved to the suburbs and had two to three children. The Master, then, is a study in displacement—and Anderson’s camera certainly studies Phoenix’s face, often turned downward in pain, and his wrecked posture, as well as Hoffman’s merry complexion and its transition to ruddy anger when his teachings are questioned. The cinematography, captured mostly on 65mm film stock, looks amazing on Blu-ray – it’s no substitute for the theater, but high-definition does preserve the images’ analog beauty.

Anderson has been criticized for using large-format film in a smaller aspect ratio and to shoot lots of close-ups, sometimes in shallow focus. Parts of Freddie’s face often slip in and out of sharpness, and his early scenes with Dodd are often captured in alternating one shots.

During their first on-screen conversation, shots of Freddie all include bits of out-of-focus Dodd in the foreground, a red blur that threatens to obscure the image. In their first “processing” scene, where Dodd’s relentless questions peel back some of Quell’s defenses, shots of each actor feature the back of the other’s head—a traditional over-the-shoulder set-up, except that the back-heads often blot out a sizable portion of the screen, showing struggle without any physical grappling. When Dodd tells Quell to close his eyes, Anderson cuts out of the tight quarters, into a flashback of Freddie and his young girlfriend back home – a lovely, sad culmination of a bravura sequence. Anderson may play around with close-ups and blurs, but the power of his 65mm compositions is, in both their fidelity and their intent, tremendous.

There are more traditionally imposing shots in the film: of the vast blue sea seen from Freddie’s ship, or of the desert landscape where he and Dodd ride motorcycles into the distance. But the movie keeps burrowing in, rather than expanding into greater vistas; it’s an even more internal epic than There Will Be Blood, which used vast landscapes as a backdrop for Daniel Plainview’s singular misanthropy.

Upon first viewing of The Master, the wall between Freddie and the rest of humanity, along with the imperious remove that Dodd maintains from his quasi-subjects (he and Peggy both have a theatrical, mannered way of speaking), may give the impression that something is missing: scenes, sequences, direct and unambiguous answers. Indeed, the film’s many evocative trailers, included on the Blu-ray, tantalized viewers with shots that turned out not to feature in the film itself. Many of these shots turn up again in the disc’s outtakes section.

Anderson has come to favor impressionistic outtake reels rather than traditionally organized deleted scenes: as with the There Will Be Blood video release, The Master‘s Blu-ray places all of its deleted footage into a single 20 minute document. Deleted and alternate scenes bleed into each other, out of chronological order and held together by Johnny Greenwood’s portentous score.

Some of it twins or echoes scenes that did make the final cut. A tracking shot of Phoenix wandering through a Navy celebration mirrors the shot of him in the final film, wreaking havoc on a department store; shots of him running across different landscapes recall his dusky escape from a farm early in the film; and the movie’s final shot of Freddie on a beach (itself a repeat of a shot early in the film) has a real-life counterpart with a woman made of flesh and blood, rather than sand.

These bits and pieces are hypnotic, but seem to confirm both that a hypothetical 180-minute version of The Master could have mesmerized me just as ably as the 140-minute version, and that said 180-minute version would not be easier or more explicated—it would just keep on digging into Freddie’s fractured psyche.

At the end of the reel, Anderson’s voice intrudes on a take of Hoffman and Phoenix cracking up on set: Phoenix can’t stop breaking at one of Hoffman’s line, which causes Hoffman to dissolve into giggles, too. There Will Be Blood‘s reel ended with a similar puncturing of mood—a tacit admittance, perhaps, that the extra footage will not offer traditional revelations. Even the movie’s behind-the-scenes material resists simple explication: it’s composed as an eight-minute short called “Unguided Message” that consists largely of lo-fi tracking shots through the film’s various locations and sets.

I don’t think The Master is willfully ambiguous so much as sure of itself. In the film, Dodd never betrays a sense of doubt or hesitation, even when Freddie directly frustrates his efforts to control the Cause. Anderson behaves similarly, even though his empathy seems to lie with the agent destruction. It may seem less accessible than Boogie Nights, but The Master is as heartfelt and heartbreaking a movie as he’s ever made.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/168600-the-master/