Debating The Master

TOC's film critics puzzle over the meaning of Paul Thomas Anderson's film. (Spoilers!)
Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master
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Ben Kenigsberg I’d never advise a first viewing of The Master in anything other than 70mm—it’s showing that way Friday 22, Saturday 23 and Monday 25 at the Music Box—but it’s great to have the movie on VOD, because you want to return to individual moments, even individual cuts. The editing is extraordinarily subtle; dream and fantasy aren’t obviously signposted as such. Watching the Blu-ray’s deleted scenes would feel like cheating. It strikes me that what’s in or not in the film is that way for a reason.

A.A. Dowd See, I’m dying to take a gander at the excised footage, if only because it might help pare down the numerous interpretations The Master has inspired. Where you see a carefully constructed puzzle, I see a glorious muddle designed to provoke—but never confirm—countless readings.

BK Certain things are clear. This is the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a damaged WWII vet once involved with a girl, Doris (Madisen Beaty), in Massachusetts. His lost love for her is paralleled in his relationship with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a cult known as the Cause.

AAD The film’s ambiguity is maddening, but it’s also thrilling. Something I’ve been chewing on: Is it possible the scene in which Lancaster’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), gives her husband an instructive…tug is simply imagined by Freddie? The moment is sandwiched between him dozing off during Lancaster’s song-and-dance number and being awoken by Peggy.

BK Yes! I suggested as much in a September blog post. That type of stealth fantasy sequence occurs elsewhere (the movie-theater scene). And if Peggy’s advice is just Freddie’s hallucination, the moment illuminates Freddie’s feelings for Lancaster: He imagines Peggy is trying to prevent a relationship between the two men. There are only three or four instances when Freddie isn’t present. Apart from Laura Dern’s Helen confronting Lancaster, all can be seen as Freddie’s projections.

AAD The film opens on a homoerotic note, with shirtless soldiers wrestling in the sand. For me, though, debates about Freddie’s sexuality are less compelling than a central question: Is Lancaster really a charlatan? That scene with Helen—in which the spiritual leader lashes out when he can’t defend a logical lapse in his dogma—seems to suggest so. But the case could be made that Freddie improves over the movie. Does processing “work,” as the character ad-libs in a pro-Cause radio spot? Or does this recovery occur off-camera, during Freddie’s time away from Dodd? Despite critics’ claims that The Master isn’t actually about religion, the film implies that even bullshit theologies have therapeutic value.

BK I think there’s little doubt processing improves Freddie, given that it forces him to acknowledge repressed traumas. In the opening scenes, he gets flustered when the army psychiatrist brings up his sweetheart. By the end of Freddie’s sessions with Clark (Rami Malek)—who taunts him by mentioning Doris—he reacts with confidence. There is a mystery, though. Years pass between Freddie’s flight from Lancaster and their reunion in England. It’s not clear whether the leap forward in time occurs before or after Freddie visits Doris’s mom—which is crucial, because her dialogue would otherwise clarify the film’s chronology.

AAD Something tells me a single scene or shot that clarifies the time line won’t be forthcoming. Again, trying to “solve” The Master seems counterintuitive to me. Maybe inevitable repeat visits will prove me wrong. Let’s talk again after a 12th viewing, okay?

The Master arrives on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday 26.

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