Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) – A Dissection of Human Relationships

Woke up with an unusually melancholy mental and physical state this morning, so you know what that means…

Following up There Will Be Blood must be a leisureless task. How does one proceed what many deemed at the time and still today as one of the greatest motion pictures of the 21st century? There are common guidelines in the Hollywood realm on how to successfully, in both a financial manner and a positive reception manner, do this. Example: make your next movie have bigger stakes, or concoct a more relevant cast, or explore a story/structure similar to what gratified audiences initially with your previous outing. Yet, director Paul Thomas Anderson does exactly what many would say not to do when proceeding after a triumph that puts you on the radar to a god-like degree: make an ambitious, extremely non-commercial piece that countless will likely not comprehend or even enjoy, as its unconventional, passive execution, and controversial subject-matter may upset general audiences—AKA, make a movie like The Master

“The war is over.” All that men can think about right now is returning to a lifestyle of sex and drinking; World War II soldiers completely brainwashed of violent predicaments that America has desensitized them with are being released back into ordinary society with the burdened paranoia of what’s to do for their next chapter. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is the worst of them though. He’s as foul as humans come; perverted, malicious, greedy, self-centered, and unmotivated. His libido automates like a rat and his intentions reek of untamed sadism. Pig-ignorant 20th century doctors will write off his condition as, “oh, hes just another recently retired soldier that’s acting out as the common misogynistic male,” but we as the audience are seeing the true grotesqueness of his persona all in full PTA contrasted graphics. This man needs help. He’s a living parasite who hops off of one job only to be fired from his uncontrollable temper, bringing only sheer pain to others out of the confines of his mental disorder and lack of pursuit or destiny. 

Our secondary character Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), on the other hand, is a man who desires control. In one of his very first scene, he even slyly exclaims his intentions as an individual in a dragon allegory, revving up his prey to be as glorious as one magical beast, but in secrecy, just another puppet for him to play around with as he rides his pursuits to glory in pushing his beliefs as the “definitive” among followers. He’s the kind of pseudointellectual who uses a pretentious religion as his strong suit, one that has no boundaries (whenever it’s, of course, convenient for him), one that preaches the ambiguous mystery of the unknown, one that incorporates a touch of hypnosis plus maybe a bit of charm here and there, and one that takes advantage of a post-World War II setting of inexplicable desperation to convince his subjects of the authenticity of his “cause.” Ultimately, however, his shtick works wonders. While working to the benefit of this religion he has fabricated, many seem to cast him as a frontline in trust, value, and moral wisdom. 

So what exactly is The Master about? Well, it’s about these two deeply flawed (in their own ways) individuals colliding as partners. Freddie plays as Lancaster’s subject, and Lancaster plays as Freddie’s teacher. They’re both narcissists that feed off of each other’s ambitions to make one disgusting combobulation of turmoil and association. Yet, during this greedy back and forth game of cat and mouse, and in spite of all the self-righteousness that’s transpiring between commander and student, the two become aided by each other’s company. Freddie actually begins to develop a more potent consciousness and Lancaster begins to feel as if he’s truly influencing a purely broken and frankly taxing follower. Religion or cult can sometimes be perceived as the most externally false practice at times, yet can also be interpreted as the most meditative and guiding art there is to human tranquility. We don’t need reality or facts to achieve a prosperous life; we need information (good or bad, right or wrong) that can psychologically complete us. Manipulation sometimes is our greatest companion; as long as we fully believe what we’re being told—and it evidently puts us at peace—it may eerily be the best thing for our well-being. 

Controversial, right? Intriguing? Absolutely.

For a man who probably doesn’t think much about his life and walks aimlessly on soil ground while wasting air among the Earth’s atmosphere, it only took an around ten-minute “Processing Test”—a surreal set of questions and obstacles that are additionally featured in the greatest performance-driven sequence I’ve seen in the history of film—for Freddie to finally start contemplating the mark that he’s made in society during his life span, and what he should seek for in the future. In a way, Lancaster is essentially Freddie’s life coach, one who forces him to dissect his influence over the years. Freddie can’t function on his own without a leader, without some to teach him how to, well, continue living prosperously. 

“If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.” – Lancaster Todd

We’re all an endless row of domino followers and mazed babies who need that satisfaction of feeling wanted by a superior. People often say that once you’re first born into the world, you are instantaneously perplexed by what’s around you, but Paul Thomas Anderson knows that this is not the first and last experience in which the human individual encounters these natural issues. It is always happening. Guidance is what propels us into having contentment for our own existence. Submission to someone who could or could not be knowledgeable is the only option we have because we are just naturally confused by our existence and need assistance deducing it. 

I like to accept that, in the end, Freddie and Lancaster both figured out the great truth of life: an owner needs his pet as much as a pet needs its owner. Everybody is a controller and everybody is a follower. The back and forth exchange of submission, necessity, and guidance is what creates lovers—in this case, between Freddie and Lancaster. They are both each other’s master. Paul Thomas Anderson seems to find beauty in this forever natural cycle in human existence. This, overall, is what I choose to believe The Master is about. 

Yeah, I could list 100 reasons why Joaquin Phoenix physically exudes disorder more than any other actor could care to carve out in intricate gestures—same goes with Philip Seymour Hoffman; that is a long list, however, and maybe I’ll leave that open for my third article on this movie. Also, don’t even get me started on how well the color variation and placement in this homage (but also critique?) of the 1950s period of wealthy fashion quirks are too. From the landscape shooting, character composition in a shot, and to the lighting intricacies; these visual factors define perfection. The shot where Joaquin Phoenix opens the door that leads to the dewy land-field is by far one of the cleanest shots I have ever laid eyes on, and there are plenty more shots that I could expose in my review, as well. And, did I mention that there’s another iconic, nostalgic score by Jonny Greenwood in this! What a film The Master is!

You know? It’s almost like Freddie and Landcaster’s relationship was meant to be an evolution of Daniel and Eli’s relationship in There Will Be Blood, seeing as they both need one another in order to pursue their goals—Daniel: competition. Eli: to cure and to finance. Hmm. Speaking of such films, I suppose I should compare the two while on the topic. There Will Be Blood, to me, has a slicker construction in its formal technicalities—editing, structure, progression in plot, etc; the only thing I would leave out of this is the cinematography. The experience of PTA’s 2007 breakout is just more riveting in the moment of watching it, as well. Thematically, however, I find The Master particularly more interesting and contemplative in what it sets out to say; this is why the two movies seem to always be bouncing back and forth as my all-time favorite from Paul Thomas Anderson. 

On a side-note, it is kind of funny though how Amy Adams was occasionally the master of Lancaster in this movie. This is even further proof that nobody is ever completely in control. Or you know, because she’s Amy freakin’ Adams.

Verdict: A+

My All-Time Favorites, Paul Thomas Anderson Ranked, The Victors of the 2010s

“The Master” is now available to stream on Netflix.

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