'The Master' Stimulates, But Does It Entertain?
Paul Thomas Anderson’s esoteric The Master is a Freudian reverie ripe with metaphor and cryptic meanings that, while not always entertaining, is certainly intellectually stimulating. The Master is set in the aftermath of WWII, when men tried desperately to grapple with the horrors unleashed by whatever means possible — drugs, suburban exile or, in the case of our “aberrated” hero, religion. But The Master is less about historical fact and more about allegory, submerging its characters and dialogues in symbolism — although the contextual representation and acting are indeed, err, masterful enough that neither feels shallow. What may at first view seem like a poignant but entirely undecipherable narrative is elucidated by the application of a Freudian lens, through which the film’s central figures take on narrowly defined roles that we can better comprehend.
In this light, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) embodies the id or unconscious, associated with uninhibited sexual desires and destructive impulses that make him an instinctual, erratic being — a “silly animal,” as Dodd frequently terms him. A Naval veteran with a penchant for toxic homemade brews, Freddie is frequently linked to the sea, a metaphor for the subconscious, and defined as a seaman by Dodd and others, no doubt also an onomatopoeic reference to his elemental sexual nature. (When shown a series of vague images by the army’s psychologist, he identifies all of them as genitals.) And yet this contradictory creature lusts for domination, for an instrument with which to navigate reality and reintegrate into a world that cannot accept him the way he is — not for lack of material opportunities, as there is no apparent shortage of employment, but because he is resistant to social convention, because he has no boundaries.
Lancaster Dodd and, by association, The Cause, a Scientology-esque dogma bordering on cult that he defensively leads, offer Freddie refuge and purpose — and he seems genuinely willing to become Dodd’s malleable “protégé and guinea pig,” without necessarily understanding that he inherently cannot be tamed, that he is a “hopeless” case (as Dodd’s wife concludes). Thus he finds an at least temporary relief from his chaotic depths aboard Dodd’s ship, where he is greeted with a laden welcome: “You’re safe now, you’re at sea.”
In the opposite corner, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the captivating charlatan Dodd represents the superego: the conscience that passes judgment and yearns for increasingly unattainable perfection; the infinitely unsatiated part of the self that always demands more and better, and which invites the conjuring of repressed instincts, but only through his own prescribed methods. Submitting Freddie to an endless string of torturous exercises, he refuses to reveal the ultimate goal (and may not know it himself), so that only he can assert when it is reached. This relentless superego seeks to permanently control the self: he is the irresistible megalomaniac that wants to dominate, the master or self-professed commander of the vessel.
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But as Freddie realizes in a lucid dream, “the captain never leaves his ship” and never ceases to demand more power. Although the two compliment each other by virtue of their differences, we understand early on that their alliance is doomed to fail. While the narcissistic superego is premised on the belief that the self craves a dominating force, the volatile id insists on free will, not by principle but by essence.
In a mediating role as the intermediary ego, Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) is a similar paradox. Frigid and maternal all at once, her calculating and pragmatic rationale offers stability and promises continuity when the other two falter. Adams’ pallor is ideal for the role, and she matches Phoenix and Hoffman’s performances with a seamless delivery.
Together, to continue with our psychological rhetoric, they comprise the self — its elements always at war, and here further shattered by the violent exposition of its grotesque innards, consequently catapulted into maniacal self-evaluation. Bubbling underneath Dodd’s inculcated composure are tempestuous impulses and an aggression that crash through on occasion, like waves on the shores of a carefully constructed existence. A revelatory shot of Freddie and Dodd side by side, in their individual prison cells, shows their respective reactions to entrapment. The former lashes out violently, destroying with brutal force the few items that decorate his cage, while the latter stands poised, seemingly stoic, until the other defies his power and questions his knowledge, at which point he becomes infuriated and verbally attacks his subversive opponent.
But the most commendable feat of The Master is perhaps its dramatic pedigree. Phoenix’s facial and corporal contortions reveal an interior trauma that is so overwhelming, so consuming, that it seeps through as exterior disfiguration — spasms, tics and hunched back are only physical symptoms of the storm brewing underneath. Rarely has an actor portrayed such permeating trauma so painfully realistically as Phoenix does here, in a tour de force that may very well mark his best performance yet. Similarly, Hoffman is unbearably charming: it is easy to trust that he is successful even as he seems so evidently to “make it all up as he goes along,” as his son (Jesse Plemons) remarks. Pompously erudite at times, and almost buffoonish at others, Hoffman portrays the theatrical excesses of his perverse Dodd to a T, allowing us to suspend our disbelief even for this histrionic personage.
There is, indeed, no lack of substance or acting excellence in The Master, and yet there remain a series of shortcomings that detract from our enjoyment. It is, most notably, extraordinarily self-conscious, long-winded and apparently unsympathetic to its audience’s plight: what masochist would want to submit himself to two hours plus of aimless cinematic interpretation of Freudian jargon? It is also deliberately frustrating to watch, with an unnerving score and stream-of-consciousness approach to match, which — while effective at inserting us into the anarchic mindset of the film — become hard to digest when paired with the recondite subject matter. As such, it serves as a cautionary tale against the risks of implying too much — even if the cinematography, acting and, yes, script are as refined as they might be in such an arcane context. Alas, if such is the ritual practiced in Mr. Anderson’s cult, then consider this deranged devotee formally inducted.
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