I have been thinking a lot lately about why it is that I write these reviews and also why people, peculiarly, take the time to read them. One obvious answer to the later is that they simply want to know whether or not a film/book/album or episode is good before they both buy and consume it, constricted as all our budgets are (both in terms of time and money). If that is the case for you, the question that you bring to each review, then know that the answer in this case is an unreserved yes; The Master is a masterful film, it is a masterclass in movie making, the work of people who have here all mastered their respective crafts and all those other puns that you would expect to find within the type of a textbook review. Sated you can now shut down this tab and move on with your lives; the rest of you though, those with more complex questions, should follow in further.
(WARNING: Really not a normal review. It gets better but never saner. Read at own risk)
As someone who struggles to opportune much import from the opinions of others – one unable and unwilling to follow most masters for both better and more often worse – I rarely read reviews for the aforementioned reason. I rarely read reviews until after I have experienced the content in question and reacted to it in my own way, forming my own opinion and through the writing of a review molding this into the shape of my answer. I am though, like the two characters in this film, a hopelessly inquisitive man and so a single answer is often just not enough to sate me. So I read reviews and ravenously devour their answer, sitting it meticulously alongside my own in the collection. This it not the only reason though, no, for it is the differences between these two texts – my thoughts and theirs – and the debates these demand – even though they oft be one-sided – that interest me most.
You may by no be wondering just what in the hell this has to do with The Master and you’d be right to. The reason that I have spoken about all of this though is twofold: firstly it is somewhat thematically relevant to the film and secondly The Master as a movie is incredibly hard to fold into the form of text while retaining its full and true shape. Though it is a tale built around easy answers – that of one man who gives them out and another who tries so hard to take them in – The Master never gives them and so any analysis of it would be ambiguous at best.
To be honest it really even restricts the clarity of its questions, only giving us the form of a few clearly: What makes the soul of a man? What is his nature? Is this immutable? Has it changed since we were mere animals? These seem like the themes, like the topics that the tale is tethered around but even as open-ended and mercurial as these philosophical ponderings are their phrasing still seems reductive in relation to their execution within the film itself; so the thought of providing a clear cut answer to them seems suitably preposterous.
If, however, you left this film feeling as if you had such an answer, that you knew exactly what the meaning behind this speech or that squint was then you are either a liar, an idiot or a much smarter man than me. This is an art-house film where not-getting it is the point and knowing for sure only a sign that you were watching wrong. There are people in this film though that would watch it in this way, ‘wrong’ as it may be, because they prefer all their questions to have clear and simple answers; these are the members of The Cause, the Master’s cult. Like many of the men and women in the world today they want only to be given solutions and aren’t interested in developing the formula that can be used to find them. This film would infuriate them because it’s not an opioid, it’s the opposite of that.
This lack of answers is somewhat ironic given that the film itself is structured so strongly (in so much as it is strongly structured at all) around a series of questions; multiple scenes are built around interviews, interrogations and acts of inquisitiveness that border on inquisition. These mirror Scientology yes, but that is so secondary; more important is that they also work wonderfully on a thematic level. Usually such scenes are used for exposition, each answered question should give us another clue or breadcrumb, should bring us closer to these two men and make clearer their situations but instead it often has the opposite effect here because their answers either conflict with what we think we know or are conveyed in a manner that we simply cannot trust. Freddie Quill is of course a self-proclaimed liar and Lancaster Dodd is making his history all up as he goes along.
There is a recurring visual motif in the film that feels quite meaningful to me: the wake Freddie see’s from the rear of the film’s many boats, the trail that he leaves behind. Is it the ripples from his past path that shape him? Can he ever really change it’s direction? I don’t know, but it certainly seems like the film’s director Paul Thomas Anderson can; this is the work of a different man than the one that made Magnolia and more. More important than that though is the possibility of other connections between the cinema auteur and his characters: whether or not Paul Thomas Anderson may also be lying to us and just how improvisational his own approach is (look beyond the impeccably constructed cinematography and it seems like maybe a lot).
Towards the end of the film things twist and one begins to wonder: Is this scene a dream? Is it imagination? One of the film’s stranger scenes speaks of a controversial change in the Cause’s processing method from being based on memory and the act of remembrance to that of fantasy and the act of imagining, after this the film could easily all be the fantasy of Freddie Quill. We may laugh as the idea of inventing a future when it is put forward in the condensed manner of The Cause but it is actually what we all do in our own way. Similarly their notions of past lives may seem too strange to swallow, but we see in the film’s very beginning the many different lives that Freddie has lived: a dirty sailor reincarnated as a posh photographer, reborn as a Chinese farmer then reformed as a stowaway.
Here is a stranger idea. Joaquin Phoenix came out of self-imposed satirical retirement to make this movie (and thank god he did, he wipes the floor with whatever Jeremy would have done and I really respect Renner) as his follow-up to I’m Still Here. Who’s to say that this is mere coincidence? That The Master isn’t a follow-up in other ways, a spiritual sequel to that film just as it is a structural one to There Will Be Blood. Is the film so impenetrable and void of answers because it, like The Cause, is a false construction? Are we cineastes not like the cult member’s flocking to find meaning in the muddled words of the one we see as a master, words that he merely makes up on the spot? Is he maybe also commenting on the current elitist catechism by becoming a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes as Phoenix did failure in his own film? Probably not, but it makes as much sense as any other answer.
No-one can take life straight, that more than any of the other idioms truly describes the function of the film for me. No-one can take life straight and yet we survive: some by making strong potions that dilute it, others invent strange philosophies to condense it and I… I need art like this, I need new questions to try and fail to truly answer in order to expand myself enough to allow life clear passage. So if what you wanted was a proper review of the picture, an answer, then i doubt you found it here, but if it is questions you wanted then hopefully I have provided something to ponder. For if nothing else that is what The Master gave me.