Last week, NPR ran a piece called "Why We’re Happy Being Sad: Pop’s Emotional Evolution." The story focused on University of Toronto professor Glenn Schellenberg, who found a shift in the emotional content of music in the last 50 years, discovering that people today respond more to music with negative emotions—music played in minor keys, for example—than music with positive emotions. With the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, this story couldn’t have come at a better time. Anderson’s latest effort not only features a somber score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, complete with fierce guitar strums of minor chords, but it also represents the very same idea of the NPR story, as it relates to movies. Melancholic in tone, nihilistic in concept, complex in character, The Master epitomizes what the story calls “the latest emotional fashion.”
Set in the 1950s, The Master is a character study of a disgruntled Navy veteran named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). After losing his job as a photographer in a retail store and then going on to apparently kill a man, the alcoholic Freddie ends up on a boat with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd and his friends, who comprise a religious group, take Freddie in and try to help him—or so it seems. As you may already know, Dodd is a take on none other than L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, and his friends are his Scientologist cult—here called the “Cause”—including his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), and son, Val (Jesse Plemons, aka Landry from Friday Night Lights and now Todd from Breaking Bad). Anderson, though, doesn’t seem overly interested in the subject of Scientology, in particular; instead, he seems more interested in religious belief as a whole, but even more the nature of man, specifically through the characters of Freddie and Dodd.
As an inseparable, almost codependent pair, Phoenix and Hoffman turn in some of their finest performances to date; both are spectacular and part of what makes The Master as alluring as it is demoralizing. Phoenix, grossly skinny and strangely postured, plays the awkward and at times scary Freddie so well, with his uncomfortable movements and piercing eyes—eyes that can only sometimes mask his character’s deformed upper lip. And Hoffman, confirming again just how absurdly diverse an actor he is, gives an even more dynamic turn as “The Master,” a character who, as much as he positions himself morally above Freddie (whom he calls an animal and scoundrel), has just as many flaws as Freddie—they’re merely flaws more easily disguised. Technically, both fit the mold of a psychopath—Freddie, a killer and sexual predator, among other things, and Dodd, a megalomaniac—which probably explains why the two share an obvious chemistry.
One of the problems, though, is that Anderson positions his film so closely on these characters that he neglects narrative, and thus the summation of scenes, feeling fragmentary, makes not for a strong or vibrant plot; it makes for numerous demonstrations of how jaded Freddie and Dodd turn out to be—from Freddie losing his cool during bizarre therapy sessions to Freddie getting into fights and breaking everything in a prison cell to a series of increasingly bizarre sexual acts that The Cause either enables or exploits. Out of this string of images—shot on rare 65 mm film stock—Anderson, being the formalist that he is, creates scene after scene of visual splendor—stylistically, he is at his best. His attention to detail is astonishing, and the precise contrast between large scale shots and close-ups could only arrive from the eye of a director grounded in film history—the name Stanley Kubrick naturally comes to mind. But as impressive and captivating as these images might be, they still fail to come together and form a well-rounded story. Maybe if Anderson created characters we could connect with, it might be easier to overlook such narrative missteps or lack of narrative steps altogether, but neither Freddie nor Dodd represents a human being we can relate to emotionally or spiritually, and thus it’s hard to care about either. They’re simply too bizarre—and arguably weird just to be weird.
The ultimate problem—and paradoxically the ultimate answer—here appears to be Anderson’s overarching vision, a nihilistic vision that, with regards to his body work, peaked with There Will Be Blood. While he doesn’t communicate an epic story or sympathetic characters, he does communicate an idea that drives both forward. He introduces this idea, this theme, early on when Dodd, still on the boat at this point, passionately states that “Man is not an animal.” What Dodd means by this statement is that man is an animal, but with the help of religion, more specifically with the help of the Cause, man can be redeemed—“un-animalized” you could say. But as it turns out, Freddie is a different case; no matter what Dodd and his followers do—and they try practically everything—the man proves beyond the ability to save. Anderson’s point, however, has just as much to do with the other characters than Freddie. In exploring this group of nuts and getting to the bottom of who they are through the study of Freddie, Anderson continually insists that all these individuals are animals, that man is an animal, and that religion doesn’t really save us; it really just distracts us from reality. In short, humankind, like Freddie and Dodd, is irredeemable or, perhaps, in no need of redemption at all.
It’s a hopeless and depressing thought but, in coming back to the NPR story, exactly the thought that people today want to see and hear and exactly why viewers are bound to eat it up. Which raises an important question: How good really is The Master? How much of its allure comes from the sheer craft of Anderson and how much comes from our cultural disposition for sadness and futility? Well, the only probable answer for me, a possible minority in this case, is both. Anderson has without question made a big, ambitious and aesthetically realized picture, but it’s too flawed to be the movie of the year or the movie of the decade for that matter—unless, of course, we’re talking about fashion, about why we’re happy being sad.