Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
In that long lull in the beginning of Gettysburg’s fourth act, there’s a throwaway scene with Hancock and Chamberlain which serves to show that Hancock is thinking about Armistead almost as much as Armistead thinks about him. Hancock asks the learned Chamberlain, a professor in peacetime, if he can recall any story from history which pits two men, like brothers, against each other on the field of war. Chamberlain replies that if the Greeks did not tell that story, then the Romans must have. “But sir,” he says, “I think it must be from the Bible.” The Master is as opaque as that wall that Freddie (Phoenix) spends so much time walking to and throwing himself against over and over again; it invites struggle in the reading. The best answer I’ve got is the same one that Chamberlain had for Hancock. I think it must be from the Bible. The Master has gotten most of its press from its presumed similarities to Scientology, but The Master can’t escape the Christian heritage of either of its times.
Freddie bounces around in a sequence which is more talkative than those early scenes from There Will Be Blood but which do much the same work in emphasizing the man at the outset. There Will Be Blood showed us a man who was as lief to be alone as to work with someone else, and who only changed once he was badly injured. The Master puts Freddie in the Pacific during World War II, although he is nearly as alone as Daniel Plainview all the same. Daniel at least could pass as something next to normal, which Freddie is incapable of doing. The other men wrestle on the beach or lounge around, chatting amiably. Freddie hacks a coconut off a tree and fills it with an unknowable booze. He sloshes it around in his mouth pleasurably. There’s a sand-woman on the beach, and as some other men bemusedly admire her—any sailor can tell you that there is Nothing Like a Dame—Freddie comes up and feigns sex with the poor girl for much longer than is funny. He shoots off into the ocean, which is gross and, God forgive me, deeply funny. That beach on the edge of VJ Day is far from the only place where Freddie’s undying reliance on alcohol and his perpetual quest for sex come together, but it’s the first. He is so erratic that he ends up in a rehabilitation program for men with PTSD (not that the armed forces call it that). The callbacks to John Huston’s documentary Let There Be Light—the only movie I’ve misted up at in the past ten years—are clear, from shots (short close-ups of individual men, small rooms for therapy) to dialogue (a voiceover about the kind of businesses and opportunities the vets may look forward to after completing the program). It’s also clear that Freddie is not suffering from PTSD. Therapy is as wasted on him as milk without vodka, because there’s nothing to fix in him that the army doctors are prepared or capable to fix. A Rorschach test goes over about as well as a fart in a church. A request to hear about a dream he’s had leads to a straight refusal. Why would I tell you about that? he says. Freddie’s face comes with this leer, as if he needs to breathe out of the left side of his mouth because someone has beaten the pulp out of the right, leaving no more permanent damage than the squinting eye.
That scar Phoenix has always had is one of the great physical advantages I’ve ever seen on an actor, and in these early scenes it left me in mind of the mark of Cain. He wanders with the same aimlessness we associate with his one-sentence relocation to Nod, and with the same fear of being driven out and killed. In one sequence, Freddie is working at a farm. (This is after he loses a drunken fight with a customer at the department store where he takes photographs.) He slices the cabbages out of their patch and in his spare time has made an enormous supply of hooch. He gives too much to an older man, who has to be carried to his bunk. “You poisoned him,” someone says over and over again, and eventually Freddie, chased by three men, tears out of the shanty and crosses the fields, huffing and puffing. Cain is a strong analog for Freddie, but I also see Elijah in him. One of the last major events of Elijah’s life was to run like a maniac from what he assumes is certain death at the hands of Ahab and Jezebel after he killed a whole bunch of people. He prays to God to let him die; he finds food prepared for him instead. He travels further, hears God’s instructions in the quiet, and goes about anointing the next generation of leaders, including the prophet Elisha. Freddie shares Elijah’s propensity to cut and run in a way that I find fascinating, as well as the ability to polarize any group of people he wanders into. Either he is the prophet or he is the murderer. Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) sees in Freddie enormous potential, although his reasoning is never evinced. Perhaps it’s the gift of knowing that putting paint thinner into a drink gives it that extra somethin’-somethin’. Maybe it’s Freddie’s raw energy. Maybe it’s the feeling that he’s met this ne’er-do-well before. (At the end of the movie, Lancaster remembers; they ran balloon messages in France in the 1870s, as far as I can tell.) In any event, Lancaster accidentally gives his Elijah a fiery chariot and watches him speed away.
There may not be a greater copout in character writing than Id-Ego-Superego, and there may not be a greater copout in reviewing someone else’s character writing than returning to that trope. The Master doesn’t leave us much choice. Freddie, who never does get a handle on his drinking and whose obsession with sex might genuinely be called an addiction, walks with stooped shoulders. Sometimes his feet don’t seem to work right. His slurred speech isn’t necessarily an indicator of how tight he is; it’s an indicator of his animalistic tendencies. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, Prendick comes across the animals-becoming-men. He describes their speech of one as “a thick voice, with something in it—a kind of whistling overtone—that struck me as peculiar; but the English accent was strangely good.” Short of the English accent, that’s not a terrible descriptor of Freddie’s own speech. (More than once, Lancaster pushes Freddie to resist the animal inside of him in favor of more civilized actions. Once again, there’s Wells in it: “Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?…”) Furthermore, his primary reaction to an affront is violence. Twice he is present when a man disparages the Master, and twice Freddie beats the pulp out of the offender.
The Superego is Lancaster’s younger, pregnant wife, Peggy (Adams). Peggy is an adherent to her husband’s religious movement and one of the Processors who can adequately train members of the Cause into their ways. She is as unsmiling as Amy Adams has ever been in a movie, never quite dour or exasperated but always serious. Freddie’s presence among other members of the Cause is discomfiting to her; it’s more likely that he’s an infiltrator from the feds than the wayward hobo you seem to believe he is, she tells Lancaster over one dinner. Devotion to the Cause, as it were, is the only thing that interests Peggy, and she finds time and space to upbraid Freddie for his lack of devotion from beginning to end. Sometimes she targets his alcoholism. Sometimes she stares him down with meaningful looks. Sometimes she just scolds him, as she does at the end of the movie before walking out for good. (“This is something you do for a billion years or not at all.”) Her control does not hold back Freddie alone. In one scene, she catches Lancaster with an erection. She takes hold of him and tells him that those are for her, not for anyone else. (It is worth noting that a disproportionate number of…Causers?…are women.) He ejaculates in the sink, all the time making noises like she is turning him on immensely but also taking some damage from the assault. She is significantly more aggressive about the Cause than Lancaster, who she accuses of playing defense. How are we supposed to make any inroads in the larger culture if you’re constantly fending off attacks? Whether or not she knows much about Freddie’s violent outbursts against critics of Lancaster, she would almost certainly agree with his feeling if not his precise tactics.
It’s Lancaster who is the ego in this situation, who shares an intimate (if largely unseen) connection with his wife and who spends much of his time trying to reel in the crazy man. At the end of the movie, after breaking from Lancaster for good, Freddie tries out Processing on the one person we see him having sex with. Anderson lights Phoenix’s left side at the expense of his right; in a shot that Freddie, presumably, sets up so as to take the Master’s photograph, the right side of Lancaster’s face takes on the same pattern of shadow. While Lancaster is never seen running away from anyone, or taking a motorcycle beyond the edge of the horizon, he shares with Joseph Smith (and, of course, Freddie) a need to move on. He finds Freddie on a cruise ship headed to New York from San Francisco via the Panama Canal. Much of the movie is spent in Philadelphia, where Lancaster is arrested. Phoenix is the site of a conference for believers in the Cause. The last time we see Lancaster, he has crossed the pond entirely and settled in London. In another five years, who knows that he will not continue to hop his way to stranger and more remote cities, trying again and again to anchor his movement in a place that won’t immediately uproot him. Lancaster is difficult to pin down largely because he’s open to silliness much more than either Freddie or Peggy. He makes a—toast? I guess it’s a toast—about dragons and how to get a pet dragon after a wedding he’s conducted on a boat. He makes a self-effacing joke about laughter to begin the conference after sitting in stony silence in a dark office beforehand. He sings in front of his disciples and bounces back and forth between rooms as he does so; he even sings to Freddie. “I’d like to get you on a slow boat to China,” he sort of huskily croons; it’s the next reasonable guess for where they’ll end up.
Through its leading trio, The Master paints this stunning portrait of the foolishness of faith and the helplessness we feel before the faith we profess. The Cause is a somewhat nondescript philosophy, but at its heart is the idea that people can access the past through Processing. In one early scene, a young woman remembers an event that transpired while she was in the womb. At a party in New York, Lancaster gets a woman to remember that in a past life she was a man. The greatest thing that Lancaster could do for the cause would be to die, like Jesus or Joseph Smith. It would freeze his teachings in time; as it is, he seems to add to them in a way that ruffles his adherents’ feathers. One of his strongest supporters, and his host in Philadelphia, is a woman named Helen (Laura Dern). At the conference, Helen asks about a change in the Processing script; it no longer reads as remembering past events, but “imagining” them. She’s a smart enough reader to understand the connotation; Lancaster brusquely dismisses her. It’s a reminder of what his son, Val (Jesse Plemons) and Freddie himself have said: “He’s making all of this up as he goes along.” The inimitably named Bill William (Kevin J. O’Connor) dismisses the second book that Lancaster publishes; it would have been a better three-page pamphlet than sacred text, he says. One would have to be a fool to buy anything that Lancaster says, and yet contradicting it is sort of like waking up a sleepwalker.
At the New York party, a fellow named John More (Christopher Evan Welch) squeezes his way into a monologue that Lancaster is throwing out there for his audience. “Excuse me,” he says heaven knows how many times over ninety seconds. Eventually Lancaster yields the floor, realizing that the man isn’t going away. More has bones to pick about Processing, which is obvious and arrant nonsense. More also has a lot to say about some claims Lancaster has made about being able to cure diseases as severe as leukemia through Processing, which is the only thing Lancaster says or does which seems to be legitimately harmful. Lancaster, for his part, invites the man to be Processed, and says that he doesn’t fear inquiry into his methods; how else do people progress otherwise? But he boils over eventually, which was always More’s object:
More: I belong to no club, and if you’re unwilling to allow any discussion—
Lancaster: No, this isn’t a discussion, it’s a grilling! There’s nothing I can do for you if your mind has been made up. You seem to know the answers to your questions! Why do you ask!
More: I’m sorry you’re unwilling to defend your beliefs in any kind of rational—
It’s a brilliant exchange, even if it’s as transparent as the glass on the other side of the room from Freddie’s wall. It takes a real prig to make a cult leader into the hero of a situation, but More manages to do it with all the formulas that the Internet would later turn into an art form. “Discussion” means surrender to More’s superior logic, in his parlance. “I’m sorry” is a classic concern-troll opening, and it’s disingenuous at best to say that Lancaster is “unwilling to defend” himself when that’s all he’s done since More began excusing himself, down to offering to perform the single serious rite of the Cause. More only ever showed up to prove that he was smarter than Lancaster, or more logical, or simply better. At the heart of most discussions against religion is More’s patronizing tone. You, the faithful, are idiots for believing what you believe. I, divorcing myself from this feeble-minded conception of life-the-universe-and-everything, am wise. Lancaster is, in short, precisely correct to call it a “grilling.” He is, lest we forget, also a charlatan who professes that he can cure someone’s cancer by going back trillions of years into the past and removing it like a mote from someone’s eye. In front of faith like his, we are forced to reckon with the nonsense which goes hand in hand with the strength of it. It cannot be knocked off of a pedestal or sliced away like a coconut is from its tree. Even if what Lancaster preaches is grossly wrong, there is power in the way that it has entwined itself in every bit of himself that must not be made light of. Dismissal doesn’t make his point of view stronger, but it teaches us about the way that faith gets its hooks in one person and then in a larger group of people. What More is incapable of understanding is that his sarcasm has no more power to expel the Cause from Lancaster or Peggy than Lancaster can exile cancer from a trillions-year-old soul.