It’s difficult to know where to begin in trying to break down or even describe The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest masterpiece. If I must start at the beginning, it goes something like this: Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie Quell, a soldier just finishing a tour of duty in World War II. It is presumed he is somewhere in the Asia Pacific, but if the movie specifies where it is lost in the shuffle. Mr. Anderson is not a director to waste time on exposition of any kind: he brings the audience into his stories, wherever they may begin, and they must figure everything out for themselves. It’s a style of filmmaking that probably makes him feel inaccessible to many viewers. It’s a generalization, but it does seem that most American movies don’t leave their audiences in the dark for very long at all. Setting, time, place and intent is usually served up fairly quickly.
Does it feel refreshing, then, that you have to work so hard to orient yourself in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie? Both yes and no, depending on the movie. Mr. Anderson’s last work, There Will Be Blood, left you feeling at the end of the movie, that all the work you had done was worth something; there was a reward of sorts involved. Not so with this one: it’s a long setup to get to the core of the story- the encounter with Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, and the ensuing relationship that is the rest of the movie. At its finish, you may feel a sort of release, but nothing close to reward. That does seem to be the point of the movie, however; every shot, every gesture, every word is very carefully orchestrated. This meticulous attention to detail is one of Mr. Anderson’s trademarks, one of the reasons why he is probably the greatest American director of his generation.
It’s a waste of time to try to explain the order of events in the movie; it wouldn’t do it justice. Mr. Anderson understands the reason why movies exist, their unique ability to tell a story that differs from the other mediums- the marriage of image and text. Neither can exist properly without the other, and neither makes sense by itself. Remove the dialogue from this movie, and it wouldn’t have the impact- nor could you simply read the script and understand its meaning.
Having said that, even with the two together and an audience’s captive attention can’t necessarily shed light on what exactly the movie is trying to say. After sitting through the movie, I still can’t really explain it. The subtext was rife, and the metaphors difficult to digest. Essentially, it’s a story about a philosopher (I hesitate to say “religious leader”, even though that is a part of what the movie is about, because he doesn’t utter the word god once in the entire two and a half hours). It’s a story about what people choose to believe and how logic can’t be applied to it, and the easy way out of rational discussion is to raise your voice and call the person questioning you a cretin. But it’s about much more than that. It’s about being a true believer, being brainwashed, questioning life’s meaning, animal urges and behaviors, violence, sex, death, love, and every human being’s true intentions. It’s about the truth, lying, friendship… it’s about everything because it’s about life. But never in an after-school special kind of way. In a fellini-esque, unanswered questions, Paul Thomas Anderson kind of way.
Again, everything I can possibly write makes the movie sound heavy-handed, and it’s actually exactly the opposite. It is so subtle that it borders on incomprehensible. Long conversations the characters hold have little discernible meaning, and the density of the dialogue is only made more obscure by its masterful delivery by Phoenix and Hoffman. The thing that is reassuring for an audience member lost in the weeds is that everyone making the movie was on exactly the same page. There is no confusion, no mixed messages or differing intent. At certain points in the movie I tried to picture the intense huddles that must have been held by Messrs. Anderson, Hoffman and Phoenix as they decided exactly what each scene was about and how they were going to do it. Then again, I could be totally wrong, and maybe there was no discussion, no conspiracy, just acting. It’s difficult to tell. Either way, the end result is impressive, albeit slightly mystifying.
The quote that best encapsulates the movie is said in the penultimate scene by Lancaster Dodd, to Mr. Quell. “…you’ll be the only man in the history of the world who has never served a master.” Obviously, the implication is that every man serves some sort of master, whether physical or mystical, and it’s impossible to escape that sort of indentured servitude- life is comprised of it. But if one of the characters actually said that, broke down the basic meaning of the line, then the entire movie would have shattered into pieces. Because the entire goal of the movie is never to say out loud any kind of proclamation either way about religion and whether it’s good or bad. Even that sentence I just wrote feels wrong, feels like a betrayal somehow of the movie. It is a questioning. An unanswered questioning about what people seek to help get them through life. While it’s frustrating to admit, the movie echoes the plain, unspoken truth that there are no correct answers, only more questions as we move through life, and perhaps on to other lives.