Spoiler alert: there’s really not a great deal of fundamental narrative action in this film. No twists to reveal. But if you’d rather not know too much about the film before you see it, don’t read on.
I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master on Friday night. Here’s the thing: I sent an email round to a few colleagues asking if anyone was up for coming to see it, and a bunch were. They’d read reviews, seen the trailer, caught the accolades. There was a general consensus: we were going to see something pretty great. People were excited.
The basic set-up of the film is this: Joaquim Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a returned WW2 survivor suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, whose appetites for drink and sex fail to bring him peace. Losing his job, he stows away on a luxury yacht, which happens to be chartered by ‘The Master’ – one Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Dodd and his followers have invented a ‘method’ for helping people get over their neuroses and overcome the pain of their deep past, and the film then follows interplay of the powerful and abusive relationship the evolves between Freddie and The Master.
Coming out of the film it was clear that opinion was very divided. The film looked great, that was obvious. And the performances are quite brilliant. Oscars deserved. But there was a sense of being a bit cheated going round too. People had trusted critics they trusted…and experienced a difficult and demanding film.
It was the question of the trailer the perplexed me most. I’d seen it a couple of times, and a key point of action had jumped out each time: Joaquim Phoenix’s character screaming to Philip Seymour Hoffman: ‘tell me something that’s true!‘ I waited for it…but that scene never appeared.
Here’s my thought: Anderson has done something very clever indeed, creating a trailer that’s not a taster for the film, but an integral part of the message of the film itself. The trailer sucks you in, promising a coherent, thrilling narrative, but what you get in the actual film something profoundly different: still beautiful, but more troubling, disturbing, disorientating and challenging than we’d been led to believe.
The trailer is, in other words, a kind of grand deception. By using scenes in the trailer that are deleted in the final film, he has created a piece that is un-nerving to watch. There were points of reference I was looking for, and these were removed, leaving the me more lost in the film than I’d bargained for.
I left the film with the words ‘tell me something that’s true!’ ringing in my mind. Yet the deception goes deeper. The film is called The Master, but in fact the true master is the master’s near-silent wife. (Anderson has a knack this. His last film There Will Be Blood was entirely bloodless until the very final, very bloody scene, by which point the viewer was almost crying out for it, for what had been promised.)
Indeed, one of the core themes of the film is the inability of two men to escape the power that two different women hold over them. Both men are incapable of functioning without them, and both use alcohol to try to escape this. Both fail. Both also have an unhealthy relationship to sexual encounters: in a recurring scene we see Freddie on a beach at the end of the war, trying to screw a woman the men have made out of sand. He wants to be held, to hold, but they crumble and are washed away. In another powerful and central scene, Dodd is masturbated by his wife Peggy (played by Amy Adams) – one is left in no doubt as to who is the power behind the throne.
A film called The Master, about one man’s powerful hold over another, thus becomes an exploration of two weak men, one of whom is exploiting people’s past for money, while the other is suffering PTSD and groping around for relief from his past, unable to find it in his excesses. The power comes from the dialectic when these two weak forces meet: for Freddie’s natural urge is to throw himself entirely into the method and excessive loyal obedience to Dodd.
And this is the major point of interest for me, because the film brilliant examines what can happen when you believe something too much. If you stick with the belief, either it destroys you (which the method very nearly does to Freddie) or you destroy it. Freddie very nearly does destroy ‘the method’ with his violent outbursts, but the key scene here comes towards the end, when, out in the desert, Dodd tells Freddie to jump on a motorbike, pick a point in the distance, ride as fast as he can, and just go for it… And Freddie does. He obeys precisely. But the effect that this total obedience to the method produces is his exit from the method: he keeps on riding, riding, riding, leaving Dodd far behind, never to return. Excessive belief nearly killed him, yet by following it through to its farthest conclusions, it ended up saving him, by destroying itself within him.
In a recent post, Peter Rollins wrote this:
This is why fundamentalist communities are not threatened by the anaemic liberal claim that they believe too much. This is what they want. This is the fantasy that sustains them. Rather the truly radical claim is not that they believe too much but rather that they don’t believe enough. That their belief is sustained by a disavowed unbelief. What one does is challenge them to believe more.
The point here is that the unbelief allows the communities to get the psychological pleasure from the beliefs that they hold (treating them as a security blanket) without having to confront the horror of them.
This is why the people who leave fundamentalist communities are often not the ones who don’t take it seriously enough, but those who do (and who are thus confronted with the true horror of the communities beliefs).
It is this central difference between the actions of the two men that is the core. Dodd can only continue to believe in the obviously ineffective method because he sustains it through a disavowed unbelief. The tension that Freddie brings into the comfortable situation The Master has (aboard a luxury yacht) is that his belief is 100%, and this proves hugely threatening to those existing in comfort around The Master’s disavowed unbelief. (In one scene we see Dodd’s son admitting that he father is ‘making it up as he goes along,’ in another, Dodd flusters and gets angry as he explains to one follower why his latest method apparently contradicts the original in his book.) Those around Dodd ask him to get rid of Freddie. Not because he doesn’t believe in what they are doing, but because his over-abundance of belief is threatening to destroy them.
So the final scene where Dodd tells Freddie he must either choose to stay and serve quietly or leave for good is the ultimatum that all belief systems must present: total submission, or total exclusion. Not total belief, note. Either you remain subservient and obedient and make it clear to everyone that everything is fine, or – as Dodd says to Freddie – we can never see one another again. The question of whether Freddie believed is never raised. The problem is the consequences of that belief.
The film is a complex tale of hope, because we see Freddie make the right choice and refuse the disavowed unbelief. He exits. Not that this cures him of his problems, but at least he is no longer trapped into a false method that patently won’t help him.
I’d highly recommend seeing the film for the incredible performances, and one of the many trailers before you do…though it’s not a great office night out flick!
It’s an elaborate pack of lies that Anderson has constructed here. But in the hypnotic circular telling of them, they do lead us out into some kind of light, which is this: over-belief in anything leads to destruction, either of the self, or the dearly-held (yet false) belief. Which way the wrecking ball swings is, in the end, up to you. And never, ever mix a drink using paint thinner.