I am not a particular fan of Michael Bay, but I have to give him his due; he can stage action scenes like no one else, and his style is to admired. Not so much his story-telling abilities as his films place action above story, dialogue with plots that are thin, flimsy and flat, and serves only action. And I am afraid that The Master is almost the art-house equivalent to a Michael Bay movie, as much as I hate to say it as I loved There will be Blood. As you expect frantic action scenes, exceptional editing, over-the-top battles and explosions in a Michael Bay movie, then The Master will give you everything art-house fans love; exceptional acting, dialogue, long unbroken takes, transgressive story-telling, paradoxes and just about two of the finest performances you’d ever see, but in service to what? This is what I and many struggle with when watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s incredible, frustrating yet mesmerizing movie.
I don’t know how Paul Thomas Anderson begins to write a movie. His movies are more organically based around characters and their actions than any other director, particularly with his There will be Blood and The Master. If you had to break it down on the basest level of criticism terms, the macguffins are the characters who drive all action. The main focus of the movie is Freddie Quell, an ex-GI who, in all honesty, is just about the most broken human being ever placed on camera. Early in the movie he is booked into a ward for post-traumatic stress disorder but he’s been damaged even before going to war. Certainly we don’t see him do any fighting. All he seems to do is booze, and he makes drinks from anything with kick that he can get his hands on. In one scene he drills a hole into a torpedo and drinks the fuel. Later he mixes a cocktail from photo developing chemicals when he begins work as a photographer. When his mixes get him into trouble he stows away on a yacht sailing from California to New York through the Panama Canal. He meets a dubious intellectual whom everyone calls ‘The Master’, and it is about an hour into the movie when we learn his name is Lancaster Dodd. Dodd claims to be a writer and a scientist, but has founded a movement called The Cause, which broken Freddie is drafted into.
As the title implies Freddie becomes a servant to his master, whom he becomes extremely protective off. Joaquin Phoenix plays the role in a strange, animalistic way, and seems to act more like a guard-dog than a human. When he talks his eyes are hollow, but seems to speak from only one side (making me wonder if he has not had an undiagnosed stroke at one point in his life). Philip Seymour Hoffman is the exact opposite; calm, collected, intellectual, charismatic, though much of seems to be pretension. The third most important role in the movie is Amy Adams as Peggy, the wife of Dodd, who seems to have more influence on Dodd and his Cause than the movie lets on.
My biggest problem with the movie is that it is about a lot without being about anything. As I made clear above there is a lot in the movie to admire, but I can’t help but feel that movie takes great care to beautifully tell a story that does not amount to anything except to showcase great performances and the director’s own style. We get glimpses on how the Cause operates, how many believe in it, how Lancaster and his wife operate with it, but do they believe it? Can’t say for sure. Does Freddy believe it? Can’t say. Does he benefit or lose from his association with Dodd? Can’t say with certainty. If there are ideas behind the scenes and if they suggest something then the movie does not communicate them very well, and I am not particularly sure that they are. I don’t mind gleaming stories from implication and gesture, but I can’t give any concrete evidence on anything the movie tries to say. Maybe that was the point. Maybe.
I am of two minds about this film; so many admirable qualities, yet I feel no real reason to see it again immediately, like it gave all it had to give in the first viewing that a second viewing would give me little else. When I left the theatre I tweeted “I don’t know what just happened but it was powerful”, which is true enough, it was memorable, but in the end I feel that the only reason to see this movie is the acting and the directing for it is not much of a story.