The Story of Lost Men

Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie Quell, one of the millions of lost souls returning from war in Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant “The Master.”

There are favorite movies and then there are movies, good and bad, that leave such an indelible impression that they’re affixed, permanently, in a sense of time and place. I remember, clearly, the days and the theaters when I witnessed, for the first time, Star Wars, The Cotton Club, Blue Velvet, Cronenberg’s The Fly, Pulp Fiction and There Will Be Blood, among many others. Some of those are masterpieces, some are merely spectacles that I’ve outgrown (you can guess that one), and some were merely wonderful diversions.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is another, and it fits squarely in the category of a great movie that has also crystallized in my mind the time and place where I first watched the thing–a sunny morning at the Lagoon Theater in Minneapolis. And I honestly can’t remember when I’ve entered a movie with such high expectations and watched in rapture as those lofty preconceptions were were met and exceeded.  Though it is not without flaws–or perhaps it is better to say it is not without its profoundly perplexing moments–The Master is a cinematic marvel, one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen, and a searing document about a man at odds with himself.

The facts: Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is in trouble. The Master opens on a remote island in the Pacific, during World War II, as sailors engage in perhaps the most dangerous moment in any conflict–the waiting. A combat veteran I once interviewed noted that in war you fight, then you wait, then you fight, then you wait, that the imbalance can drive you insane, and that it is in the waiting that the insanity is nurtured. This is on full display in these scenes, as Quell and his cohorts box and wrestle, drink excessively, masturbate, and sculpt buxom women in the sand, a woman that Freddie cannot get enough of, fondling and humping her in full view of the rest of the disinterested men.

Shooting in 65mm, director Paul Thomas Anderson uses this epic canvas to expose the tough, yet fragile, personalities of these sailors, men who look as if they’ve stepped right from color illustrations in wartime Life magazines. These scenes are gorgeous, bright sunlight washing out the colors, and they’re as horrific as they are pretty, in a way that’s unique to combat situations–these men are losing their minds, but it’s almost worse to see this play itself out in the public spectacle of the sand and the ship. No one blinks an eye as Freddie mounts the sand woman, or when he guzzles fluid from bombs in an attempt to get wasted. This is mass lunacy. With his wide lens, Anderson leaves nothing hidden, the unraveling of psyches on the deck of ship, on a beach, or in a department store later on. Without a single battle scene, he drives home the madness of war with more aplomb that any film I’ve seen in the last three decades.

Phoenix is a marvel here, slimmed down to nothing but skin and muscle, looking ever so slightly like Popeye, talking out of the side of his mouth, squinting, his back hunched as if he were carrying enormous forearms, wearing secondhand suits that look shaped by healthier bodies. Freddie is sharp, eager, and broken. Crushed by both a lost love and his time in the Pacific Theater, he drinks and drifts from job to job, working as a portrait photographer, as a migrant worker, and then, serendipitously, stowing away on a ship rented by a quasi-religious group known simply as The Cause.

It is here he meets the charismatic leader of this outfit, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and it is here that The Master kicks into high gear. Like Anderson’s other movies, The Master is about people seeking community where society (or their own family) has failed them. But Anderson boils down his subject even further: both the Navy and Dodd’s own organization have essentially failed both men, and we begin to see a tight friendship grow.

Why would the leader of The Cause seek friendship in a drunken, almost feral personality like Freddie Quell? The answer comes almost instantly, as we see Dodd guzzling Freddie’s potent potables, and then, as Dodd evolves from a man trying to rein in Freddie’s chaotic life to a man who needs this uncontrollable spark of energy in his life. Dodd is a man who’s got what he wanted–power, money, control–only to discover these things are, in fact, deadly dull and spiritually unsatisfying. But Freddie is never dull. And now the worlds collide.

Like Citizen Kane’s examination of William Randolph Hearst, The Master is only moderately about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. Like Kane, this is the story of personalities, and where Kane burrowed into the shadowy mind of a man by tracking through the inside of buildings, The Master’s wide lens seems to suggest that within every troubled soul are wet and sticky neuroses, troubles that Anderson drags out to wither and dry up in the bright sunlight.

The Master is a troubling film about very troubled personalities. On one hand, we have Freddie, wrecked by war and his own troubled heart; on the other, we have Dodd, a purely American charlatan, who finds, probably to his horror, that his spirit is in no way satisfied by this charade.  In the film’s most arresting moment, Dodd asks Freddie if he would like to be “processed”–one of the many ways Dodd burrows into the minds of his followers through a series of tough questions. Freddie is eager for processing, but mostly as a challenge, or game. This is the moment when the two personalities become indelibly linked.

Both men sit, half drunk, across a table in the bowels of the yacht streaming across the ocean to deliver the master to New York City. Freddie is twitching, Dodd is still, waiting with pencil ready to scribble down answers. In the movie’s most brilliant move, Dodd tells Freddie he must never blink during the whole of the processing.

After a couple of false stars, Freddie doesn’t blink, and his soul is exposed. By keeping Freddie’s eyes open (and demanding that they stay open), Anderson shrinks his canvas–your eyes fixate on Joaquin Phoenix’s, as you listen to his Freddie relate the first backstory of the movie, a sad and sordid tale that makes your spine tingle just as it deepens your concern for Freddie.  And when Dodd snaps his fingers and tells Freddie that it is now OK to blink, Anderson’s canvas expands to its normal size, and then we get the first flashback in The Master, as we finally witness Freddie’s heart’s desire, the woman he has pined for, the fuel in the engine of his self-destruction.

The Master’s first half qualify as probably the best hour in cinema I’ve witnessed all year. But like Anderson’s other films, There Will Be Blood most notably, the narrative flags. Or rather, it splinters–The Master, at once following the trajectory of Freddie’s destruction or redemption, becomes a series of amazing vignettes, but they never coalesce into a whole, and its ending–abrupt, bizarre–leaves you baffled, albeit mesmerized.

As usual, Anderson’s women get short shrift: Amy Adams is outstanding as Dodd’s fierce and homey wife, Peggy, and Laura Dern is on hand as a wealthy patron who is fleeced of a lot of money. Neither have any telling moments, though at times Anderson seems to be pushing Adam’s Peggy toward being a shrewish bitch who only wants these two men separated.

This is, however, a film about men, and most specifically Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell. And it is an honest, brutal examination of what World War II did to its best and finest. Read Bill Mauldin’s Back Home, watch The Best Years of Our Lives, or any film noir about a former soldier turned to a life of crime, and that’s the story of Freddie Quell. Though it may never have been told better here.

So would it be that the ending had held up to that first half. Or not–honestly, I’m left wondering whether Anderson’s capable of closing out his movies, or whether this is simply a method whose point eludes me. I can’t imagine anyone walking out of The Master feeling satisfied by its resolution. Maybe that is the point–like Freddie Quell, in his quest to find meaning or simply a place to exist, or Lancaster Dodd, in his urge to control and find peace within that control, they will never meet a satisfying resolution in their troubled lives.

If that’s the case, why should we?

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