Never let it be said that Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t give us something to think about. With his latest film The Master, Anderson has tackled a subject arguably more challenging and confounding than his previous offering There Will Be Blood, which looked to the American oil business and its relationship with Christianity for sensational dramatic material.
With The Master Anderson has stepped into the world of quasi-religions. Herein we discover a fictitious group called The Cause, based in no small part on Scientology and the legacy of the group’s founder L. Ron Hubbard. An alluring Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd (based on Hubbard), an outrageously charismatic charlatan who describes himself thus: “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all I am a man.”
It is when Dodd meets Freddie Quell (a frightening Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran of World War II suffering from a severe case of Post-traumatic stress disorder that he is fuelled into action and feels compelled to help the man. Dodd takes Quell under his wing and offers him therapy, support and above all seemingly genuine friendship, in exchange for Quell’s expertise in brewing a dangerous substitute for alcohol; a drink largely comprised of paint stripper.
Initially Dodd’s friendship with Quell seems genuinely beneficial and Dodd’s therapeutic techniques have a short term impact on Quell’s sense of catharsis, but Quell’s troubles are deep seated and Dodd’s faux expertise begin to seem doubtful. Despite being a damaged soul, Quell is still a fiery individual by nature and soon conflict arises between Dodd and he. In one extraordinary scene the men are imprisoned together, leading Quell to smash a cellblock toilet in misdirected anger.
In spite of Dodd’s declaration that “man is not an animal” (a theory that seems to be the basis of The Cause) the relationship between Dodd and Quell has a very animalistic quality. Anderson shows this with particular clarity when the men wrestle on the grass outside of Dodd’s house. The portmanteau ‘bromanace’ has never seemed more pertinent.
The expertise with which Paul Thomas Anderson carries off the continually fascinating (and consistently entertaining) relationship between Dodd and Quell is without question. His command of the cinematic language is so competent (with his stunning use of 70mm film) that it makes us wonder to what extent the title of the film can be considered a pun. Yet, in spite of its mastery, a question remains: what exactly does Anderson want to say?
Like There Will Be Blood the meaning of The Master is illusive. Anderson leaves us with numerous disparate thoughts and feelings, but no closure. Like Quell’s battered seaman we are adrift in search of meaning, left only with Frank Loesser’s song (I’d Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat To China, abysslike shots of the ocean and naked women (sculpted out of sand, if all else fails).
Perhaps Paul Thomas Anderson wants to tell us that, instead of seeking a higher meaning and instead of following the theories of others, we can only rely on our basic animalistic urges. Perhaps when Dirk Diggler fixated on the content of his pants back in Anderson’s second film Boogie Nights, the director had said everything he had to say. As for The Master only time and repeat viewings will tell.