In Defense of 2012’s Best Movie, ‘The Master’

In September of last year, I ventured to a movie theater to see The Master with two coworkers. I’ve considered Philip Seymour Hoffman the best actor in the galaxy for as long as I’ve been watching movies. I was one of the very few people who saw and loved Joaquin Phoenix’s guerilla-style faux-doc I’m Still Here. And as far as oil field epics go, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a more perfect depiction than Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood

Yes, as one may imagine, my hopes and expectations for The Master were very high. 

After sitting in the theater for what seemed like 39 days, the three of us stood to leave as the closing credits rolled. We walked in silence, a fitted mass among the 20 or so other people who decided to spend their Sunday afternoon doing the same thing. And then one of the guys finally said this as we were opening the door to leave the building: “So … what did you think?” He broke the levees. For the next hour or so, we stood in the parking lot of the movie theater, dissecting and questioning every tiny moment we could remember from the film. The best part? None of us drove away feeling as though any of our inquires were resolved. 

Welcome to what made The Master so impossibly confounding and massively addictive. It was loved. It was hated. It began arguments. It sparked debates. It freaked people out. It made absolutely no sense. It made all the sense in the world. It was overwrought. It was pretentious. It was portentous. It was long. It was uncomfortable. It was hard to look at. 

And, of course, it was confusing as hell. 

But that’s also why it was far and away the best movie of 2012, despite the absence of Oscar love it will most likely receive on Sunday. The film divided everybody — everybody — who had two eyes, three hours and an opinion to spare. Some dismissed it as nothing more than a love story between two men. Some called it too narrow to have an impact. And some, such as Rene Rodriguez at the Miami Herald, argued that its ambiguity simply got in the way of its actual story. 

“Some critics have championed The Master as an intentionally elusive and mysterious movie, but I think that’s a cop-out, a fancy way of saying Anderson couldn’t fully convey the ideas in his head,” she wrote in September. “The movie poses questions about the importance of faith, religious or otherwise, how far the human capacity for change can stretch and whether there is such a thing as emotional damage so profound it can never heal. But these are hardly new thoughts, and the picture is too timid or reluctant to explore them in depth. By film’s end, The Master has become a contest between two gifted actors trying to shout each other down. The commitment to their roles is impressive, but it’s tethered to a weightless, airless movie, a film so enamored of itself, the audience gets shut out.” (“‘The Master'”, by Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald, 20 September 2012)

Such observations are categorically lazy. Using the notion that the director couldn’t properly convey his points as the crux of an argument against the quality of the film is hypocritical at worst and simple-minded at best. Part of what makes The Master so beautiful is its allergy to resolution. Granted, the clouded mindset this movie highlights so forcefully might not be the most appealing form of art for some, but it’s impossible to justify a difference in taste as a responsible and objective reason to discount the film as a whole. 

In fact, the movie’s goal appears to be precisely the opposite. What Paul Thomas Anderson does so magnificently within each of his films is create a world of purgatory. It’s a dissection of the dissection of moments that make up moments. Words like “layered” or “deep” or “intricate” hardly begin to describe how naturally the director captures the ugliness of life. His approach to filmmaking borders the bizarre and winds up on the good side of brilliant. The Master is a more accurate extension of that very unique talent than any other piece of work Anderson has created throughout his career. 

Accentuating the matter is the mastery (yeah … I did it) of both Phoenix and Hoffman as actors. Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd’s shared processing scenes are like watching Mozart and Beethoven sit at a piano together, working toward an extraordinary piece of timeless composition, a dance that very few have the ability to ever gracefully achieve, let alone consider. It’s impossible to think of these roles being portrayed as humanely or palpably by any two other actors working today — the complexity of the story at hand would simply never allow it. Each performer brings an acute sense of focus to the table, deeming the notion of seeing anyone else in those roles an impossibility. Their singular skill-sets as actors transform this movie from being convoluted to complete. 

Actually, the gray area between those two idioms is where the movie and its parts strive. What is Dodd aiming for by obsessing over keeping Freddie close? Why is Freddie as sexually damaged as he appears? Was it this difficult it to return to civilian life in America after the end of World War II? Did Dodd’s wife, Peggy (played by the stunningly versatile Amy Adams), have a sense of the type of bond that was developing between her husband and this lost soul? How much did both men feel the urge to repress their feelings toward one another, assuming there may have been a fledgling romance at the center of it? Then again, why assume anything? Maybe these guys were just two buddies, nothing more than misdirected men who could never understand how to properly or appropriately navigate their respective ways through life. Maybe those toxic cocktails began deteriorating their brains. Maybe half the film was a series of dreams. Maybe the entire film was one, big, long dream. Maybe if Doris, the girl with which Freddie became romantically involved early in the film, was older, none of this would have happened. 

Maybe all these maybes mean so much more than maybe.

“For all its virtues, though, The Master lacks the searing intensity of There Will Be Blood and the scope and ambition (not always fully realized) of Magnolia,” Christopher Orr of The Atlantic wrote in his review of the film. “Once Dodd and Freddie have assumed their complementary roles, the film becomes, to some degree, an iterative exercise, variations on a theme. The two dancers, gifted and subtly choreographed, advance and retreat in tempo: id and superego, yin and yang, annihilating chaos and a pretense of order. Where There Will Be Blood transmuted sullen earth into flame and launched it violently skyward, The Master is, as its opening shot advertises, a more fluid undertaking, a story of ebb and flow.

“If this structure is at times a disappointment,” Orr continued, “it would be wrong to label it a flaw. Addiction and obsession are by nature repetitive, and if The Master at times feels caught in a feedback loop, it is by no means clear that the cycles are unintended. In this the film resembles Freddie himself, the inevitable recidivist, who is at one point commanded to spend days (weeks?) marching back and forth across an ordinary living room, alternately touching wall and window, seeking an epiphanic release that will never arrive. Anderson’s film is more meditative than analytic in its mood and purposes, but if it has a lesson to offer it is perhaps this: that constant motion is itself a kind of stasis, the last trap of a wandering soul, the endless wake of a boat to nowhere.” (“The Subtle Mastery of ‘The Master'”, by Christopher Orr, The Atlantic, 21 September 2012)

Orr is right. Finding dissatisfaction in The Master because of its equivocation is kind of like being angry at snow because it’s cold. There are consequences for the actions we commit on a weekly, daily or hourly basis, and those consequences veer from obvious to obscurity so frequently that we are usually left with no time for any possible examination of the tiny things that make up a life. In film, however, those moments in time can be dissected under a microscope to which real life has no access. The absence of that lens from our everyday existence enables us to make as many mistakes as we do memories, as many decisions as we do doubts. In short, the beauty of life lies not in how aesthetically appealing we seem, but in how ugly we all know we are. 

The Master exposed that very reality in such a raw manner. It brought to the forefront the disturbing yet imperative elements of living in an unforgettable and triumphantly questionable manner. It reminded us how complex our existence is and it reminded us that answers are not an entitlement, and that in fact, they are a privilege. For that, it should rewarded. For that, it should be recognized. 

And as I found out about six months ago, for that, one hour conversations in movie theater parking lots can feel as if they’ve lasted not a second longer than three minutes.