One of the great scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson’s films (or in any film) is in Boogie Nights, where Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Scotty tries to kiss Mark Whalberg’s Dirk Diggler. “Can I kiss you on the mouth?” Scotty asks, his pale belly peeking out beneath a skintight tank top. Diggler refuses his advances, but is still friendly as he walks back to the party. Scotty sits inside his car, starts to cry, and blubbers “I’m such a fucking idiot” over and over. Anderson guts Scotty’s vulnerability like a deer that’s been run over too many times with one single shot of Hoffman’s rosacea and tear-stricken fat face. This strange and painful moment is tweaked only via Hoffman’s delivery and Anderson’s patience to let the awkward breathe. The scene feels small in comparison to Anderson’s other frenzied, multi-layered scenes, and long tracking shots that have brought comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s work, but this is Anderson’s genius: the uncanny ability to navigate the vastness of human loneliness and desperation with only simple dialogue and brutal close-ups, combined with his eye for beautifully grandiose cinematography to create a film that fucking writhes in human agony and the sublime.
There Will Be Blood is the closest Anderson has come to approaching the Romantic notion of the Sublime in which the second generation of Romanticists (John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft) appropriated the term as art and nature’s ability to terrorize and provoke ecstasy within us. I left There Will Be Blood exhausted and with a headache. It’s Anderson’s most physical film, like a slab of meat one has to cut and beat through in order to tenderize. And it seems to have provoked a fixation within Anderson, as his latest, The Master, carries those same themes of father/son intensity, fucked Americana, subversive sexuality, and our eternally sad search for God. The Master is less traumatizing than Blood, and the meat is not as well-worked to the muscle, but it’s still a massively feral thing, just more hesitant to bite.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an oversexed and overboozed Naval veteran who is either mildly retarded or suffering so badly from WWII PTSD he experienced some kind of brain damage. Phoenix appears to have lost about thirty pounds and performs Freddie as raven-like, his shoulder blades jutting out as wings, the dark shadows of his hollowed eyes and cheeks like a blackened animal skin. He’s beautiful. Quell comes home from the war and stumbles drunkenly upon a boat headed for New York. He passes out and is awoken by a nameless woman who takes him to see Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a character loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard, and Dodd brings Freddie as his protégé into “The Cause,” a thinly veiled version of the early days of Scientology.
But Freddie is less of a protégé and more of a science experiment for Dodd. A core belief held by members of The Cause is that “man is not an animal,” and we must all strive to become “a perfect being.” But Freddie’s two beliefs seem to be alcohol (he’s somewhat of a mixologist before mixology was even, like, a thing) and fucking. We don’t really know much else about Freddie other than these two impulses seem to motivate his every decision. Oh yeah, and there’s that whole Oedipus complex with Freddie’s sensitivity towards discussing his mentally-ill mother, and the maternalization and sexualizing of Dodd’s wife, Peggy (played by the totally miscast and always dull Amy Adams). Freddie is essentially a walking and mumbling version of Freud’s id while Dodd is the super-ego. This is obvious.
What’s interesting, though, is to watch Hoffman’s Dodd try to dominate Freddie. Dodd, as Hubbard, is a megalomaniac alcoholic who has enough charm and smarm to slip the cash out of any well-to-do wallet in Hollywood while hypnotizing old ladies into thinking they can travel into the past and cure their fatal ailments like cancer. He’s funny, witty, warm, and totally sleazy. Hoffman is perfect (duh) as Dodd and it’s exciting to see him continue to collaborate with Anderson. Hoffman’s manicured white hair and mustache and thick red neck lend a certain jolliness to Dodd that makes him seem like Father America. Freddie responds to Dodd’s paternal nature and eagerly submits like a showdog — or monkey, if we really want to lay on the heavy-handed psychologizing — for The Cause as he performs random ‘tests,’ such as walking back and forth between a wall and a window for days in order to improve his ‘concentration.’
However, there is one incredible gesture implying Freddie isn’t as demented or susceptible to brainwashing as we think, and it’s so fucking subtle and genius that I could kiss Anderson on the mouth, with tongue, for sneaking it in. Before Dodd realizes he is incapable of destroying Freddie’s pleasure principle and the relationship between the two men becomes fraught with tension and resentment, there is a scene in which Dodd asks Freddie to make him a drink. Freddie, known for concocting drinks consisting of sourdough bread, paint thinner, and lime juice, turns to Dodd with smiling eyes and asks, “How do you want to feel?” Dodd never answers him. In that moment, Freddie acknowledges and simultaneously dismantles Dodd’s entire belief system as ultimately the need to feel anything other than one’s self. Past lives, hypnosis, galactic forces, time travel — these are all various ingredients thrown together by Dodd to distract everyone around him from the fact that he’s a con, a fake, a swindler. Freddie’s concoctions are the liquid equivalent of Dodd’s ideologies. Both men are drinking themselves to death.
I have no idea how to feel about this film. This is rare, and I like that The Master is difficult to parse upon a single viewing. The difficulty may lie in its genius or it may lie in the fact that it’s an unfinished piece of work. I’m not sure. One thing I do know is that Anderson is fucking nuts. He’s one of the few American filmmakers doing interesting shit, and knowing his next project is an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice makes me believe American art is capable again. Sometimes, Hollywood can be a very good master.