Forget, for a moment, that it broke a studio – Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is a more responsible film than this one.
Two L.A. operas, Magnolia and Boogie Nights, made Paul Thomas Anderson a director to watch. There Will Be Blood and The Master trade the warm mosaic (of likeable but flawed people) for the arctic, measured close-up (of unappealing characters). In his reach to grow and do something new, he trips. He wants a challenge, but he overtaxes the viewer’s capacity for one. Storytelling basics – a three-act structure1, a hero to root for – seem to bore him now. To enjoy The Master is to work your way through it.
What is The Master about? Don’t ask me, and don’t ask Anderson. Blocked, perhaps, by his own hype, he skirts around a mash of possibilities. Any of the principals could be the titular master: A bear of a hustler (Philip Seymour Hoffman), bound to pitch the cult of his personality; the hustler’s ever-pregnant wife (Amy Adams), a Lady Macbeth bound to the Cause (a quack religion); a drifting, alcoholic veteran (Joaquin Phoenix). Scarred little kids though they are, they’re turn-offs. They complete each other. One is a surrogate dad to the other’s surrogate son. Surrogate mom tsks at the way her boys play. Everyone imprints; no-one is the master of his or her own life. And life – is so much cyclical bullshit. Maybe Anderson seeks the essence of the last line of The Great Gatsby. However, that’s just a sentence. This movie is two-and-a-half-hours long.
OK, so what gives? Confusing ambiguity for import, and oddness for substance, Anderson stands naked. It takes guts to give the viewer a hero to hang onto. There is a great scene here where, on a seafaring yacht, the hustler engages the drifter in a bit of “processing” (a kind of rapid-fire interrogation-by-repetition). Almost one long unbroken take, the exchange is funny, and breaks your heart. It’s also emblematic of the duel these actors take up – from the characters they play to the way they act (the Method acting coach versus the Method actor) – and the overall intellectual vagueness of the film. Anderson indulges his actors, but in this and other scenes, he tempers a plain sort of animal anguish with an absurdist streak (e.g., Phoenix screwing a sand figure in the shape of a woman; Hoffman serenading Phoenix with a pent-up version of “Slow Boat to China”). The overall effect jars. We’re not sure whether to laugh or blow raspberries. For me, the cadence instructs. Rarely does Anderson bridge the identification gap for the viewer, and what little story there is he leaves unresolved.2 The movie is a failure of execution and intent.
In Boogie Nights, Anderson let us in on a closed society (a loose family of porn filmmakers, from the 70s to the 80s) in a way that was lovingly detailed, classically shaped, and compassionately nonjudgmental. But, his possible claims to the contrary, he’s become dispassionately nonjudgmental, shutting the viewer out. In There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis essentially did a second run as Bill the Butcher (the villain in the Gangs of New York), but he was the center of the film, a crazed, inhuman force of nature bedeviled by the fact that he’s human and must share space with other humans. In retrospect, that character’s success, and the cunning and drive that spawned it, gave the viewer a foothold on the movie. In The Master, we’re tied to charlatans and curs, some of whom drink excessively and drift, all of whom we dislike. They come together and disband. What does Anderson think of them? What does that say about the point(s) he wants to make? Does he have a point, or is he after an evocation, the serpentine dynamic between a specific set of characters? Perhaps these things deserve answers.
Nothing in The Master is banal. I like the premise (a WWII vet stumbles onto a Scientology-like group). The actors man up. Interspersing songs from the big band era, the chilly, minimalist soundtrack appeals to my sense of what a score should be. The film nails the postwar look. But, due to a confused approach and an almost blatant disregard for the mechanics of storytelling, there’s just no payoff.
1You can eschew a few basic aesthetics, as long as some compensation is in order. (Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket works without a midsection.) Dump too many and you get nowhere.
2You may disagree. There is, I admit, an ending so-called, and the characters aren’t quite repellent. But in a blunt bid for artistic relevance, Anderson tells a self-consciously esoteric love story. I reject the attempt, and so look harshly upon it.