Something That’s Real: Loneliness, Ambition, and the American Dream in The Master

Every once in a while I encounter a film that sticks around. Its images run through my brain as I walk the dog, its score plays on a loop while I work, and I find myself pondering its ideas as sleep washes over me. About a month ago I attended a sneak preview screening of just such a film: Paul Thomas Anderson’s new instant classic of the American cinema, The Master.

Set in the turbulent years immediately following World War II, The Master follows recent Navy discharge Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as he drifts under the spell of an enigmatic and charming man named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose wide-eyed acolytes call him "Master." The film has generated a fair amount of controversy and attention throughout its production because Dodd resembles (not so coincidentally) L. Ron Hubbard, the notorious founding prophet of Scientology. Those expecting a Gawker-style expose will surely be disappointed. The Master is about Scientology in the same way that Anderson’s last feature, the equally stunning and ensnaring There Will Be Blood, was about oil. The setting and religious trappings are important, but they are simply the starting point for Anderson to dive back at his recurrent themes: fathers and sons, the corruption inherent to our capitalist society, and the deep well of disappointment, rage, confusion and loneliness that exists within all of us.

That well goes unfathomably down in Freddie Quell, a man seemingly made up of only the basest of human instincts. When we first meet him on a beach with other sailors during his Navy tour he is a man apart, whacking away at coconuts and logs while the other men cavort. His conversation consists of profane and ridiculous strategies for curing crabs (“You shave one testicle and then light the other on fire” is the sane half of his strategy). As a joke he pretends to have sex with a woman the other men have carved out of the sand, only to get so aroused and emotionally attached that he has to run over the waterfront and masturbate furiously. He’s no better on the ships, lazing away his days in the crow’s nest and making cocktails from the chemicals inside torpedoes. He is an utter mess of a man, something that the military seems to take small note of before sending him back out into the world.

On dry land he drifts between jobs, inevitably being chased away by others’ disgust or outrage at his animalistic needs for sex, drunken stupors, and surprising violence. Anderson captures his plight on land in a beautiful, wordless shot of Freddie sprinting across a cabbage field in order to avoid being lynched by his fellow migrant workers. It’s an image of startling beauty and grace, even as it captures a man at his most desperate and fearful.

It is at this point that Freddie stumbles into the orbit of Dodd, walking onto his moored boat as if he could have no other destination. Dodd is an irrepressible American type: the founder of a religion (called “the Cause” here) that seems to be made of equal parts faith, fraud, and entrepreneurship. Detailing the machinations of the plot past this point would spoil the film for too many people, but the relationship between Freddie and Dodd will be the centerpiece of the film. Anchored by a series of searing encounters that are by turn interrogations, friendly conversations, and titanic arguments, these two come to represent two sides of the same coin. They are the Janus of an America that is on the cusp of dominating the world, even as it loses touch with the values and characteristics that made it great.

Phoenix’s performance as Freddie is a thing of wild intensity. A cacophony of slurred speech and ferocious physicality, he disappears into the body of a man so damaged and lonely that he seems barely cognizant of his own existence. Hoffman’s turn as Dodd is much the opposite, he is a huckster and charmer whose greatest gift is the ability to convince anyone that they are the most important person in the world to him at that very moment. His “Cause,” which blends together bits of Freud, fantasy, and self-belief, is his persona writ large: a con so assured that even the conman himself is fooled. In Freddie, Dodd finds a sympathetic and wide-open soul that he can attempt to mold and grow in a bid to prove his philosophy’s worth; in Dodd, Freddie sees a glimpse of the confidence, familial love, and success that seems to be life’s only goal in post-war America. They’re both right, but neither will fully get what they want out of the other.

Overlooking all of this is Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams), Lancaster’s latest wife, and by initial appearances the type of warm and giving female soul we now expect from Adams. There is something beyond sunshine flashing behind those sky-blue doe eyes, though. Peggy is a woman of ruthless ambition and drive, and she quickly identifies Freddie as a threat to her husband’s success. His uncontrollable behavior, especially an episode of retributive violence aimed at a heckler, is deeply destabilizing to a cause that is still fighting for attention and respect. The question of how much Peggy can control her husband and his affection for Freddie looms over much of the film, even after we see one gobstopping late-night scene in a bathroom that demonstrates just how she maintains her position as the power behind the throne.

On a cinematic level, Anderson’s work here is magnificent and vast. Shot on very rarely-used 70mm film stock and boasting immaculate production design and music, The Master is a marvel to behold. There are no throwaway compositions in this film, with each shot feeling like it has been planned down to every detail without feeling overwrought or stultified. Instead, the images seem to pop off the screen, a cornucopia of vivid colors and impossibly deep shadows that bring to life the post-war period like no film I have seen. Perhaps the most memorable and haunting shot comes at the very beginning of Freddie and Dodd’s journey together. As the ship carrying them chugs out of San Francisco Bay we see its gleaming deck lights and fluttering American flag drift into the creeping darkness, the lights of the Golden Gate Bridge flickering overhead. Theirs is a self-contained vessel of the American impulse, sailing away into the unknowable future of a suddenly atomic age.

The early atomic era, of course, was when film noir reached its creative and popular peak in Hollywood, which is no accident. The Master may lack the overt stylization and pulpy roots of a classic noir such as Sunset Blvd., but it treads in the same murky moral undertow and “poisonous backwash of anomie, violence and greed” as A.O Scott put it in his review for The New York Times. As with There Will Be Blood and its relationship to the Western, Anderson is using a very particular setting and topic to poke around at a familiar film genre so as to get at some larger and more thorny issues of American life.

He has said that part of the inspiration for The Master came from “reading a quote that mentioned that the periods after wars were times for spiritual movements to start.” Knowing this throws the film into sharper relief. Freddie is an extreme example, of course, but in those post-war years America was flooded by men much like him. Disturbed by their experiences in war, they snaked back across their homeland, creating endless new expanses of suburbs and nuclear families that hid dark, unknowable secrets at their core. The economic boom that accompanied the return of this “Greatest Generation” also heralded the onset of new media, new industries, new medical and technological innovations, and new fears. All of the plasticine happiness of the Eisenhower years covered over the era’s rootlessness, the feeling that something had been lost. In an article on Grantland Zach Baron argues that the element that went missing at the end of the war is the sustenance of a shared community. Americans knew themselves, and they knew of the national and international tensions being wrought by wars, civil rights, and the omnipresent threat of atomic annihilation, but they lost touch with one another. In a brave new suburban world Americans lost touch with their neighbors, seeing them not as kindred spirits but another form of competition or consternation.

It makes sense that a cause like Dodd’s would be created and popularized in this era. In his new faith, Dodd is promising his followers that they will better know themselves and their fellow congregants by submitting to his every revelation. For a man as deeply adrift as Freddie such a prospect would be impossibly appealing. Here, at last, are the guidelines by which he can tame the inner beast and start towards the self-actualization and contentment that are part and parcel of the American dream. If the whole thing were to be a lie, though, Freddie would be destabilized beyond any hope of recovery.

Again, it’s not my place to relate how that drama plays out. But Anderson’s treatment of Freddie’s journey has haunted me since I first saw it a month ago, and I plan to experience it again as soon as I can. Something in it speaks to me in a way that very few films can even approach.