Originally posted on: Oct. 15, 2012
THE MASTER (USA, 2012)
[Spoiler in the last paragraph]
The gist: Paul Thomas Anderson's critically acclaimed sixth feature boasts his stylistic idiosyncrasies in depicting the mentally distressed WW2 vet and his relationship with the leader of a burgeoning cult in postwar America.
His chin angled slightly upward, mouth contorted at random into a sneery smile, eyes washed out, and entire face frequently slipping in and out of focus, Freddie Quell may well come across as permanently drunk and hypnotized. When his inebriated face dominates the screen, it’s often followed by a closeup of a stern-faced person opposite Quell giving him orders and/or asking questions, determined to make him one of their subjects or dupes. There’s a sort of dialectical process at work that leads up to a furtive power shift: most scenes exemplifying this process open with a two-shot of Quell and the person sitting next to or across from him, both given equal screen space. Once an interrogation or a “processing” session begins, however, it cuts to alternating closeups, in which Quell ends up revealing his propensity towards sex addiction or his insecurities, whereas the other person—whether a doctor, a V.A. officer, his mentor, or the mentor’s wife—remains distant and poised. This transitional process doles out glimpses into Quell’s backstory and psychological states, but it above all epitomizes his way of relating to the world outside himself, including his master Lancaster Dodd.
Unfortunately, though, one seldom gets to know much about Quell, despite a generous portion of the movie being devoted to probing the Navy vet’s past. Most of the time, morsels of information about him are dispensed here and there, yet the majority of it is concentrated in the first few sequences in the form of discrete chunks of his post-WWII vagabond stints: as a sailor, a portrait photographer, and a cabbage farm worker. Meandering between jobs, places, and the situations of his own making, Quell carries with him a whiff of disorientation and total isolation. His postwar years unfold episodically, without allowing much context with regard to his whereabouts, except in very generic locations such as a ship, store, and farm. If there’s anything constant about Quell, it’s that he’s helplessly intoxicated all the time. Indeed, only so much can viewers learn about him.
Then what part of the story, which centers deceptively on the origin of a belief system devised in 1950s America to cure the war-traumatized, makes it a compelling character study of Freddie Quell, when the events of his past seem unlikely to form a coherent whole? The answer might be a sense of discontinuity or disconnect that prevails throughout, indicative of not just Quell’s apparent mental disorder but his relationships with others, notably Lancaster Dodd, and with society at large, as well as Paul Thomas Anderson’s stylistic approach to presenting them. The first half hour or so is all about Quell’s ephemeral attempts to readapt to civilian life. These episodes of his postwar striving to survive are strung together in roughly chronological order, but spatially almost unrelated. Even after Quell enlists in Dodd’s burgeoning spiritual crusade called The Cause, the narrative sometimes gets disrupted by the prewar flashback fixated on his first love Doris or cutaways of the open seas. This overarching ellipsis mirrors Quell’s crushed, amorphous psyche, his wandering tendencies and inability to relate to other people. He isn’t in the least interested in adjusting himself to blend into society; he stoops to primitive instincts and impulses often at others’ expense.
Such facets of him at once bring out the contrast between him and Dodd. In fact, a straightforward illustration—or rather, schematization—of their antithetical relationship can be found in a symmetrically designed jail cell shot in the second half, where on the left side Quell unleashes his fury and tries to destroy everything around him while on the right Dodd takes it all in his stride and pisses unperturbed. It seems as if not only the toilet gets shattered into shards, but so does Quell’s (forced) faith in The Cause. A bit of context would help here: Before their imprisonment, Dodd’s son tells Quell with nonchalance, but not without condescension, “He’s making it up as he goes along. You don’t see that?” Quell instantly pounces on the son; his overreaction seems rather a failed disguise of his harbored yet barely repressed suspicion that the way of life Dodd preaches is plain sham. Why doesn’t he just turn around and run away, as he’s always done, instead of defending the con artist so vehemently? Now let's go back to Dodd and his protégé’s first encounter.
Quell meets Dodd, a self-professed writer, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher, and “hopelessly inquisitive” man, after he sneaks aboard a yacht Dodd commands. Sitting in a noir-ishly low-lit room and looking contemplative and self-assured, Dodd regards a lost, worn-out Quell lingering on the threshold with fatherly sympathy. During this sequence, Anderson conveys the two’s instant camaraderie by narrowing the physical distance between them in just a few alternating shots. Thereafter the varied distance between them ostensibly delineates something close to a common push-pull courtship pattern. At the wedding reception for Dodd’s daughter, Quell examines the Master from the back row, who warms up the guests by spinning a tale about dragons with a confident display of glibness and geniality. Then, their second rendezvous advances the relationship to the next defining phase. At first, the pair is seen in one frame facing each other in preparation for a therapy session. But once Dodd starts churning out repetitive, increasingly demanding questions leading to the two's exchange of tight facial closeups, the session quickly establishes their relative positions in this relationship. That way, Dodd soon succeeds in breaking through Quell’s boozed-up armor and simultaneously anointing the subject a precious guinea pig of his.
And thus Dodd is the ultimate master and their one-sided liaison continues unhindered… But of course, there’s more to it than that. True, they manage to find their own places where they feel most secure, the kind of stability that helps them regain their bearings in the chaotic postwar reality and assures them that order can still be restored and things returned to normal, exactly the way they were before, even in the aftermath of total man-made world annihilation. To foster such delusional hope, they are compelled to rely on each other—as much as Quell needs some guiding figure like Dodd, who proclaims during their fight in the jail cell, “I’m the only one who likes you!” Dodd also depends on the fidelity of his followers like Quell to sustain his cult and to survive. And needless to say, this symbiosis developed out of necessity extends to other believers in The Cause as well. Their desire for a decent, normal life without feeling alienated reaches a point where the degree of faith doesn’t even matter. Dodd’s son, for instance, who lives off his father, plays along although he considers him a charlatan. Quell secretly nurses his own doubts about the Master, but he willingly curbs his animal instincts and obeys. The whole enterprise is founded upon lies and deceit, in which all the related parties, the master and his patrons/acolytes alike, are complicit to the extent that the cult subsists. And that seems one of the few viable ways people acclimatized to postwar America.
In the end, Quell frees himself from Dodd’s hands, but his reclaimed independence is not the same as the unfettered freedom he enjoyed before The Cause. He’s still afloat—wandering in search of the affection, comfort, and security that Doris, and possibly Dodd, offered him, yet the imprint Dodd left on him appears indelible when Quell casually reenacts that “thought-processing” on a woman with whom he crosses paths in a pub during sex. The sex scene’s also reminiscent of the beach sequence bookending the movie, where Quell humps a female body sculptured of sand, only to find it frustrating altogether since it’s not a real woman. He finally gets to have intercourse with a real woman, but Anderson’s powerhouse performance-backed elusive character study ends with Quell wistfully eyeing the sandy woman.