Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the best filmmakers working today, and one of the best ever. Magnolia is my favorite movie of all time, and is such a raw open wound of a movie, putting heart and emotion out there in a way almost no other film has. In both Boogie Nights and Magnolia, he fuses raw emotion with astounding film technique.
In his two most recent films, he’s switched things up a bit, and rather than using film technique to immerse you in the psyche of the characters, he’s staying at a distance, observing what’s happening and leaving you to judge the complex lives of troubled men. I had a lot of issues with There Will Be Blood, largely stemming from Daniel Day Lewis’s performance, which was so big, it took me out of the movie. So, I was happier with The Master. That said, a lot of it may have been recalibrating my expectations. TWBB was a massive departure for Anderson, and I wasn’t expecting it. The Master is more in line with what he did in TWBB, an extension of technique in the same way that Magnolia refined and further examined many of the themes and stylistic elements of Boogie Nights.
The thing that I both respect and kind of don’t like is PTA’s pull back from the more invasive technique of his early films. There’s some gorgeous compositions in The Master, but in general, the technique is near invisible, leaving the viewer at a remove. I think Magnolia represented the apex of a certain mode of filmmaking, but I wouldn’t mind seeing more. I’m guessing a lot of the critiques of The Master will come from people who felt distanced from the film, since the filmmaking seems deliberately designed to do that.
What I did love about The Master, from a technical standpoint, is the construction of the narrative. It’s a very loose story, one that seems to drift from event to event without clear connections or drive. We never have a sense of the larger status of Dodd’s movement. Is it growing? In danger? That’s not the priority of the film. I think a great film could have been made following a more traditional story of the development of this movement, but that’s not this film.
Rather than taking you on a roller coaster ride, the film puts you in a trance. You drift along, experiencing these events, watching time and space pass you by in the same way that one of Dodd’s ‘processed’ would feel under his questioning. This is particularly effective during the extended one on one processing scene with Dodd and Quill, where we drift from the present day on the boat to Quill and Doris some years earlier. In a sense, it feels like a Malick film, where the editing is governed by a dreamlike associative logic rather than the need to tell a story. Though, the narrative is never as reverent or immersive towards its characters as Malick typically is.
The film remains generally clear of any scenes that would be considered typical or normal. Particularly successful was the montage sequence showing Quill’s involvement with “the Cause” where Amy Adams’ characters asks him to change the color of her eyes. The shot choice there is remarkable, and it’s the moment in the film where you get the best sense of the strange allure of this organization.
The subject matter fascinates me, and I do dream of a different film tackling the same subject. The thing that makes this film unique, and at times frustrating, is the aggressively repulsive nature of its protagonist. Phoenix’s Quill is unknowable, inexplicable and hard to relate to. He does things that push your sympathies away from him at all times, and only rarely displays the charisma to justify his actions. Dodd sees something in him, perhaps the ultimate animal to be tamed, or the part of himself that his wife wants hidden from view. Dodd clings to Quill as he clings to the part of himself that is the man, not the Master. And ultimately he must part with Quill so that his organization might ascend.
Films can be so many things, and it always excites me to view works that play with form and the nature of cinema. This film did that, and even though I don’t think every choice it made was successful, the overall takeaway is very powerful. It’s an enigmatic film, one to ponder and explore over time, and I’m curious to see it again and find out what else I can take away.