“We are on a journey that risks the dark,” Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tells Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) in The Master. He’s talking about the voyage of self-discovery he promises devotees of his quack religious movement, the Cause, but he might as well be talking about the experience of watching The Master itself, or of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s work in general. In Anderson’s hands, we are always on a journey into the troubled minds and hearts of men at war with themselves; to the intersection of primitive impulses and intellectual aspiration; and, never more than in The Master, through hubris, half-blind seeking, and love that destroys itself.
Quell has wandered, literally, into Dodd’s life and cult by chance. He’s a psychologically disturbed Navy veteran adrift in the post-war years, and one night out walking in San Francisco, having fled his accidental poisoning of a co-worker in the cabbage fields of Salinas, he sees Dodd’s lit-up cruise ship, docked as if waiting for him. People dance and drink and laugh on the ship’s decks, and he leaves the darkness and hops the rail and floats off under the Golden Gate with dance music drifting on the night air.
The Master is about these two men: the verbose, charismatic Dodd, flying by the seat of his pants as he spins out the doctrine of a movement that’s half religious faith, half self-help, made of time-travel and memories and, more than anything else, the kind of hope the U.S. had in such abundance in the middle of the century—hope that personal limitations and pains can be overcome, hope that happiness can be found, hope that mankind can survive; and Quell, the scarred, alcoholic drifter, mixing cocktails from whatever’s handy (Scotch, whiskey, gin, paint thinner, darkroom chemicals), obeying his urges and appetites and not much else, and wandering blindly, never thinking or feeling anything too far ahead of the moment. The morning after the party he’s pulled, hungover, from a bunk, and brought before Dodd, who takes a liking to him and admits to having drunk all of the most recent cocktail from Quell’s hip flask while Quell was passed out. “What’s in it?” Dodd asks playfully. “Secrets,” is the answer.
Quell is invited to the wedding of Dodd’s daughter, which is taking place aboard the ship that very day. When Dodd invites Quell, he makes him feel welcome, but says, “Your memories aren’t invited.” Quell, for a while, is all too eager to leave them behind. He has an uneasy relationship with convention. He’s not a part of the great push forward, the post-war bonanza that must have felt for many like a reward in heaven after the misery of the Depression, like the shiny, gold prize for vanquishing fascism. Earlier in the film he works as a photographer in a department store, posing men and woman and couples and families in freeze-frames of mid-century, nuclear family perfection. One day a man comes in to sit for a portrait to give to his wife, and he begins to quietly harass the man, and the session ends in a fistfight.
But Dodd’s religious movement, the Cause, represents a different kind of normality. For a while Quell is welcomed into the fold, becoming a part of the cadre of children and family and followers that sail to New York, then travel down the eastern seaboard, with stops at the homes of various wealthy benefactors, all eager for an audience with Dodd. Followers of the Cause imagine themselves to be persecuted, which to them proves their rectitude, and the Cause family feels like a closed circle. There’s a strange passion between Dodd and Quell, a fascination that movie critics seem to be taking as sexual. I think it has more to do with love, or understanding, or maybe just acceptance; each has found in the other the fulfillment of his greatest need: Dodd’s for a man to save, Quell’s for someone to care enough to try to save him. But also these men are two sides of the same coin, one miserable in his subjugation to his desires (sexual, alcoholic), the other miserable in his compulsive—and, he seems to understand, futile—pursuit of defeating those desires. When the police come to arrest Dodd for damage done to that cruise ship (borrowed, it turns out), and money defrauded from its owner, Quell gets violent, and they wind up in adjacent cells, and turn on each other. As Quell goes berserk—smashing the toilet, screaming, tearing at a bunk’s blankets with his teeth—Dodd stands with his hands on his hips and lectures him on his behavior. Dodd tells Quell he’s an animal, and Quell tells Dodd he’s a fake, and Dodd’s grandiloquence collapses into shouted obscenities. Anderson shoots them with a static camera, the cells divided evenly down the middle, the instinct and the intellect, the id and the ego, always at odds, but both suffering the same imprisonment.
As Quell, Phoenix is mesmerizing, casting his performance so far beyond mimicry or simple verisimilitude that it eclipses the other acting in the film, (even though it’s full of fine performances, most especially from Hoffman). Phoenix makes Quell physically twisted, his back almost kyphotic, his elbows stuck out from his hips at odd angles, his face contorted, lopsided, lined, and gaunt. Here we see Anderson’s genius for casting. He exploits Phoenix’s fundamental mix of strangeness and sweetness, and Phoenix fills the performance with unexpected gestures. When he meets a wealthy, elderly hostess, he briefly runs his forefinger under her string of pearls. It reminded me of Brando with the glove in On the Waterfront: a tiny detail, easily missed, that says more than pages of dialogue ever could. Quell is a monster, and it’s fair to question his sanity and mental wholeness. But thanks to Phoenix, we don’t just understand him, we love him.
A sense of unrest, of longing, of unease bubbles beneath the surface of The Master. For all the plenty of mid-century America (and the story is set in 1950, exactly halfway across, like a ship bobbing in the middle of a vast ocean, the possibilities endless, but with no land in sight), there was the nagging undercurrent: we defeated all our enemies—now what? Arguing with Dodd’s son-in-law, Clark (Rami Malek), Quell talks about his Navy service and says, “We won the war—what did you do?” Phoenix lets a momentary expression of triumph cross his face before a blankness sets in, a lost look, as if he’s suddenly realized there’s no longer any ground beneath his feet.
Quell can be seen as an animal, but there are hints of greater depths. He has a lost love, a girl in his hometown who seems to have loved him completely and without hesitation, and who he left behind for no good reason. His mother is dead, his father gone. The movie is filled with naked women—in the department store darkroom, he fumbles drunkenly with a salesgirl’s breasts; at a party, he imagines every woman naked except for shoes and the embellishment of jewelry; on the beach, before his Navy discharge, he mounts a woman the other servicemen have formed from sand, her legs spread in a position that simultaneously suggests intercourse and childbirth. Quell longs for things he’s lost, and he longs for rebirth.
Throughout the movie, Dodd tells Quell that he’s sure they’ve met before, and in the characters’ final scene together, he says he’s finally remembered: In another life, they were stationed together in Paris during the Franco-Prussian war, and they were in charge of sending out mail balloons past the enemy forces, almost all successfully. The Master, while garnering rapturous reviews wherever it’s played, has been criticized for its obliqueness, and there are moments that burst with indecipherable meaning. In describing the process of making the movie, Anderson has sounded almost Malick-like: he talks about unused footage, significant narrative changes made in editing, and an overall sense of playfulness and experimentation. In other words, Anderson didn’t always know where the story was going or what it meant. He’s become unafraid of ambiguity, and trusts the audience to interpret the story and characters for themselves. His job is just to send out the balloons. Who receives them and what message they deliver is beyond his control.