The Most Beautiful Fraud: The Master
Modern cinema, from the blockbusting franchise entries of the ‘vulgar auteurs’ to the artsy but profitable realm of the self-contradictory indie giants, has of late become the realm of miniaturists. From Zack Snyder, the marketing-anointed visionary of hyperrealist action, to Wes Anderson and his delicately crafted chamber pieces, directors have found audiences — and, to some extent, critics — that will increasingly reward them for finely detailed beauty and workmanship, even if it never really adds up to anything like a convincing story. There will be dissenting voices nibbling at the ends of this argument, of course; a Terrence Malick will lose the favor of viewers who still demand some kind of forward momentum, no matter how gorgeously he realizes his barely-narrative films, while the too-roughly-hewn work of a Rob Zombie, his imagination compressed into an unforgivably small arena of interest and his painstaking eye for detail a bit to crusty and low, will always elude the praise of the more refined sort of critic.
But we’re still left to ascertain the rightness and relevancy of one of filmdom’s oldest tropes: does a collection of great scenes add up to a great movie? If there was ever a director placed on Earth to put that notion to the test, surely it’s Paul Thomas Anderson. Starting from the very beginnings of his career as a feature filmmaker with the underappreciated Hard Eight, he has established himself with two stellar qualities: the ability to wring stunning performances out of his actors — often, indeed, from ones not thought to have the capacity to stun — and a keen sense of what constitutes a memorable scene. In six feature films across nearly 20 years, Anderson has delivered one great scene after another; his big set-pieces are unforgettable, and even in his lesser works, there are hardly any moments that aren’t worth watching for at least some reason. So why is it so hard to shake the impression that this is a man who has fairly serious deficiencies as a storyteller?
Hard Eight remains one of my favorite Anderson films simply because its stripped-down neo-noir narrative, however decorated with fripperies from the actors and the script, remains a simple and effective piece of storytelling. It has a beginning, middle, and end, a sensible narrative arc complete with appropriate and comprehensible story beats, reveals, and a conclusion that actually manages to conclude. Freed from the low-budget ghetto, he went on to make Boogie Nights, and here his troubles began: it was, to me, clearly the work of an artist who had an abundance of good ideas and no sense of when or how to use them or save them — a writer badly in need of an editor. And though Magnolia was a giant leap forward in terms of other qualities that have made Anderson such a compelling filmmaker — his ability to dig to the heart of a scene’s emotional power, his keen sense of the unexpected, and his breathtaking ability to seamlessly blend music with image — it still suffered from the same meandering, overstuffed tone, a collection of great ideas in search of a common thread to bind it together. Its deus ex bufona ending was packed with admirable audacity, but it didn’t make a lot of sense. And even Punch Drunk Love, which redeemed itself despite having a hundred things working against it, was still tonally all over the place.
That all seemed to change with There Will Be Blood. Working, for the first time, with a story that was not entirely his own, Anderson delivered a masterpiece, and what’s more, a masterpiece that told a complete story as well as delivering on its emotional power and philosophical promise. Its ending may have been abrupt, and it may have left audiences a bit perplexed as to what they were meant to take away from it, but at least it had one. Further, it illustrated, to my mind, that it is not indeed enough to say that a great movie is just a collection of great scenes; it must be a collection of great scenes that coheres. There must be, unless you are working entirely outside the lines of narrative storytelling, a through-line that can be identified and isolated from the movie’s beginning to its end. There Will Be Blood was without a doubt a collection of great scenes, but for the first time in Anderson’s career, it was more than that. The scenes were in service not just to an idea or a sustained sense of mood, not just to a group of finely delineated characters, but to a real story.
I was so blown away by There Will Be Blood that I got gunshy. When The Master opened in 2012, I was a little afraid that Anderson would backslide, and I didn’t want to lose so quickly the great filmmaker he had become so recently. The movie’s pre-production troubles, its frequent association with Scientology (which might find a dozen ways to scuttle it), its seemingly nebulous story — all these things made me nervous. Anderson was working entirely from his own script again, and once more it was a script informed by a dozen different ideas and influences. It threatened to be another of the spectacular but disjointed films he had made before 2007, and so for much of its life — its theatrical run and its initial appearance on home media — I never got around to seeing it. Once it arrived on Netflix Instant, however, I couldn’t put it off any longer. A number of events had pushed me in the direction of seeing it — the recommendations of some friends and the warnings of others; the tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman; and the knowledge that Anderson’s next project would be a reportedly straightforward adaptation of Inherent Vice, a novel by my favorite living American novelist, Thomas Pynchon — so I decided the time, two years on, was finally right.
I can’t say that I’m entirely disappointed; The Master is, from beginning to end, a typical P.T. Anderson joint insofar as it is crammed, throughout its nearly two and a half-hour running time, with magnificent and nearly perfectly realized scenes. It is stupendously acted by two great performers, each turning in work as great as anything else they’ve ever done. It is tremendous to look at, with Romanian lensman Mihai Malaimare finding exactly the right use of light and color in every scene, from the rich blues and strong grays of a U.S. Navy ship cutting through the waters of the Pacific during the Second World War to the muted golds and cigarette-stain browns of tony post-war American society houses. It is never as excessive as Anderson’s early work — he has learned, among other things, when to restrain himself. And it finds psychological depth and emotional reach in every scene, each time informed by those fantastic performances. And yet. And yet!
The Master is the story, sort of, of Freddie Quell, an alcoholic, oversexed drifter who finds himself in one bad situation after another following his release from the Navy after the end of the war. It is the story, sort of, of Lancaster Dodd, an off-brand L. Ron Hubbard improvising himself an empire on the basis of some pseudo-psychological bafflegab. It is the story of how the two of them meet, their difficult friendship, and the way Dodd’s family deals with the unpredictable behavior of Quell, which they perceive as weakening Dodd’s message. It is the story of the making and unmaking of a cult, and of the sort of people who join it and support it. But that’s all just the middle; the story, once again, has very little beginning and essentially no ending. It doesn’t end; it doesn’t conclude; it just…finishes. It runs out of time before it runs out of interest for the viewer (and for the director?), but it could have been a very near thing. For all the narrative cares, the story might as well be about a sailor and how he finds happiness in the genitals of a giant woman made of sand.
This makes it sound like I didn’t like The Master, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Its virtues are strong and plentiful. Anderson’s decision to bring back Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who did such an amazing job scoring There Will Be Blood, paid off in spades; he incorporates period music to great effect, and deploys his own jittery, ominous compositions at exactly the right moments. The film is beautifully edited, and flows along at a deadly cool pace that never suggests its 138-minute run time. Anderson’s story meanders at times, but his script is tight, punchy, and dangerous, making its arguments with concision and grace; it suggests its themes of post-war social drift, the susceptibility of a society emerging from turmoil, and the psychological power of a man utterly confident in his own nonsense with great ease. The emotional weight of the film, the tenor of feeling it achieves when it starts throwing roadblocks instead of opportunities in front of its protagonists, is exceptionally well-delivered.
And the acting is simply unimpeachable from beginning to end. I don’t often hold to movies that display an ‘actorly’ sensibility, as all too often they are distracting showpieces meant to make us remember something of an unmemorable film, but there is nothing but genuine excellence here. Credit should be given to some of the lesser lights in what would be easy to read as a two-person film; Jesse Plemons and Rami Malek, as Dodd’s son and son-in-law, respectively, embody cool passivity and polite tension, and Amy Adams is typically outstanding as Dodd’s wife (she comes across as supportive but never blind, determined but never detached, and, in one terrifying scene, as vicious as a cornered viper). But as a showpiece for Joaquin Phoenix and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, the thing practically deserves to be dripped in gold. Turning in a smoldering Method performance, Phoenix is all repressed rage and defiance, the poison inside of him warping his posture and his gait; terrifyingly self-aware of his own flaws but unwilling to do anything about them, he is easy to control in one moment and utterly uncontrollable in the next, changing with his own flickering sense of self. This may be the first performance of Hoffman’s I’ve seen since his death, and it ought to be played on continuous loop on his tombstone: it’s absolutely majestic, Falstaffian, perfect. Full of playfulness and self-regard, surprising physicality, oversized ego mixed with self-deprecating humor, a man full of secrets but bubbling over with ideas, forever on the verge of betraying himself, Lancaster Dodd is rivaled only by Daniel Plainview in Anderson’s canon. I pay Hoffman the highest compliment I can imagine when I can say his performance of the role recalled to me Orson Welles at his best.
But always there is that problem of cohesion. We spend time with Quell and Dodd, but we do not learn from them any more than they really learn from each other; they separate not because they cannot commit to one another, one suspects, but because their creator couldn’t quite figure out what should happen to the two of them. I am certainly not one to argue against an ambiguous ending; many of my favorite films feature them, and there are lots of good reasons to employ them, from wishing to keep an audience guessing to wanting to emulate life, where there is no real ending but death. But in The Master, it’s hard to shake the idea that, like in his earlier work, Anderson simply exhausted his store of great ideas for great scenes, and simply stopped the movie without ending it. The Master is an utterly compelling movie, but it’s a mediocre story at best, because it never figures out where it’s taking us.
Paul Thomas Anderson is far too talented to be a miniaturist. He possesses many of the essential storytelling tools his peers do not; he’s not a mere cinematic stuntman like Snyder, nor an emotionally cool crafter of palettes like Wes Anderson. My hopes are still high for Inherent Vice, which will see him working for the first time not just with source material he didn’t write, but source material he intends to keep faithful in the on-screen version; and what he lacks as a coherent storyteller, Thomas Pynchon most certainly does not, even at his shaggy-doggiest. If he sticks to the plot, or even the shape, of Pynchon’s novel, Anderson will likely turn in another masterwork on the level of, or even beyond, There Will Be Blood. Until we see the result, though, The Master remains another curate’s egg, fascinating by turns, containing at its heart two of the greatest film performances of the century, but still a collection of great scenes that don’t quite add up to a great movie.