I figure enough time has passed from both me seeing the Master in 70 mm print, and all you poor schmucks who saw it premiere in Finland last week, to do another Chew on the film. Perhaps writing this even teaches myself a thing or two about the film. Chew texts gloss over plot points and such, so if you're unfamiliar with the film, I advise you to see it before reading. This also means the following will contain some Spoilers.
Paul Thomas Anderson is at the top of his game, and at the point where he can do just about anything he pleases with his films. It's very rare for a major American director to create a work such as this; a visually striking, character piece that leaves out plenty of lose ends, and keeps its pace deliberately low-key. It's all well and good if your film is either compact or sprawling with ideas at every corner. As it is, however, The Master doesn't quite grab me with its content, while it does have several very good ideas at its core. The film seems to have plenty of fat in its near three-hour running time.
The most unexpected thing happened on this Anderson film: the characters don't grow on you. While Phoenix and Hoffman do superb work acting and fleshing out the characters with tiny nuances, they don't really seem that interesting to be worth following almost three hours. It might be due to Anderson's refusal to have any major climaxes, with the films ups and downs being very minor bumps in the way. After peeling away most of their cover, at core the main characters are quite one note. There Will Be Blood had the same features but it was considerably less subdued, letting itself loose with BIG melodramatism from time to time. It had some emotion in it.
Anderson is a clear Romantic but here he insists on making a big, ponderous film with the cold analytics of Kubrick and the poetism of Malick, reaching the heights of neither. The film could use several more important character's viewpoints, as of now it only really looks at two, MAYBE three individuals. It's still not a bad film by any means, and the several themes Anderson juggles throughout the film are quite interesting.
The clearest implication of the film is that it's about a lost soul looking for a place in the world. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is an ex-Marine from the War of the Pacific and doesn't know what to do or where to go after the war ends. Everything feels empty, until a chance takes him to the family of spiritual leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd convinces Quell that he holds all the keys of life, answers to all the mysteries. But "the master" keeps them to himself, constantly repeating the half-truth that his next book will change Quell's world when it's finished. Of course, when the book comes out, it doesn't make anything clearer and was just the kind of big build-up with hot air inside Dodd specializes in.
In a very Andersonian fashion, the director sees that (post-war) America is built on ideas. But rather than these ideas being always the best and the most solid, the things which to build upon are chosen by however well they are sold to people. It's a country of traveling salesmen, and Hoffman is a down-on-his luck Cut-Me-Own-Throat seller. Dodd truly believes his own product is truly wonderful, it is just too hard to grasp and too great to be able to explain to the public. His followers are sold to this false ideal rather than any real thoughts or ponderings.
But Quell doesn't get any better. In fact his aimless, reckless ways are increasingly seen as a threat to the Dodd empire by the matriarch Peggy (Amy Adams). Quell sticks around, partly because he hasn't anywhere better to go, partly because he thinks he's been convinced by Dodd's BS when in fact he isn't even thinking about it. Dodd asking endless questions and making personality tests has also Quell convinced the Master can make deep analyses of his life and knows what's best for him.
A lot of people have found a father-son relationship within Dodd and Quell. In fact both the actors seem to play a little off of each other, as if belonging in separate movies. Their relationship is depicted coldly, and both attempt feed off each other. It's more of a master-apprentice relationship as the title suggests. But in this case neither realizes there's little the other can teach, before it's too late. The father-son relationship does raise it's head at least in times when Quell rebels against his philantropist.
Castles made of sand
In the film's sun-burned imagery, the ocean is one of the rare things to be in full color. Indeed the image Quell reminisces throughout the film, is the foam forming behind his ship sailing away from the war. It's a metaphor how he approaches life. He doesn't look back or ahead, he lives in the spur of the moment like the foam, that doesn't last long. It's also repeated in the scene where the speed of a motorcycle blinds him from the brainwash inflicted by the Dodds and he manages to do a short-lived escape. An escape into nothing, it turns out.
He builds short-form sand castles for pleasure in his very first scene where he builds a sand mermaid to fuck, infinitely bored waiting for a ship to take him home. And at home the same thing goes on, idle sex, dumping the women afterwards, and Quell getting fed up with any career opportunity he's offered. It's interesting to note how Dodd is foreshadowed in the scene where Quell annoys a similar pudgy middle-aged mustached patron into a fist fight. Quell brings a hot photography light too close to his face just for the laugh.
While most of the movie is very light, there are several darker night scenes. At those points Quell almost always mixes up his trademarked cocktails, featuring all sorts of poisonous solvents and drain cleaning liquids. It hints on his character being suicidal, or just oblivious on how much harm he can do.
Looking for love in all the wrong places
Quell does try to look for the light for his life, but it is very hard to find with the film being burned throughout with light anyway. The only relationship he's ever had was with his high-school girlfriend, and even that may have been a memory gilded by living through worse times. Quell has difficulties grasping other people don't live like him, in a timeless vacuum where not much progress happens.
That's also kind of like this movie. I realize my major gripe is that a film about an aimless wanderer being offered vague wisdoms and circumspect truths, feels like an aimless, vague circumspect quasi-movie. That's the whole point. Like the Master, I just wished it had more to offer for me than it does. I may still be missing on some major revelation It's a film I really should see again, but for the moment don't really have the energy to do so.