What’s immense and perpetually restless, shifting to the eye and absorbing to the mind? The ocean. The human spirit, in its Faustian self-apprehension. Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, The Master. Here is a movie that gazes into the churning waves as if looking into a mirror, while making dirty-minded, farcical tragedy out of the wish that we, too, might be boundless and uncontrolled.
Now that this tremendous whatzit has had a few weeks to pound and roar through the theaters, and maybe wash away some of the prerelease publicity, I hope that people have become more interested in what The Master puts on the screen, and less in the question of whether it’s a history of Scientology with the names disguised. The so-called Master of the title, a character known to the legal authorities as Lancaster Dodd, is a peddler of psychotherapeutic claptrap and pseudoscientific mythology in post–World War II America—so, yes, he has a lot in common with L. Ron Hubbard. Dodd, too, has a fat book to sell (it’s called The Cause, rather than Dianetics) and travels with a wife named Peggy (Hubbard’s first wife was named Polly), with whose aid and incitement he teaches that we must awaken to our true nature as billion-year-old spirits.
In 1950, when most of the movie takes place, Hubbard had not yet fully revealed that Homo sapiens is a battleground of disembodied immortals; but the film’s fudging of the historical record doesn’t really matter, because Anderson is no more interested in making a biopic of Hubbard than he was concerned in 2007 to make a faithful adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! In There Will Be Blood, Anderson replaced Sinclair’s folksy, businesslike wildcatter with a Byronic devil, locked in a struggle to the death with geology and Christian evangelism. In The Master, he puts a Hubbard-like figure into the path of a troubled drifter named Freddie Quell and has them wrestle—lovingly, obsessively, furiously—as if they were one another’s fate.
The Master begins with Freddie—or rather with the elements and institutions into which this initially nameless character cannot fit. First we see, from overhead, a blue and white turmoil of waves, which fills the entire screen; then a close-up of level, wary eyes, which seem not so much protected as cut off beneath a military helmet; and then, as if situated between these two extremes, the back of a stooped, shadowed figure who is hacking at coconuts on a beach. It is immediately obvious that this man finds no easy middle ground between an indifferent, chaotic universe and isolated consciousness. He lifts his blade from a coconut and lowers it experimentally toward his wrist. In a form of play, which is nevertheless a struggle, he grapples on the beach with another man. (They are Navy seamen in the Pacific.) He happens by a group of sailors who have sculpted a naked woman in the sand, and in the first of many instances of going too far, he mimes making love to the figure, humping away long after the others have stopped laughing.
His outlandish behavior is kept at a distance in these initial, disconnected shots; there is neither dialogue nor a clear view of the man’s face as he masturbates openly on the beach, or when he breaks into the ship’s torpedo room on V-J Day to drain a celebratory drink from the motors. He starts as an undefined disturbance; but a brusque energy in Anderson’s rhythm carries you along with him. (Jonny Greenwood, the soundtrack composer, adds to the effect with a loping jazz-bass figure overlaid by clacking percussion.) By the time you look at last into the face of this point-of-view character and see that he’s played by Joaquin Phoenix, in all his saturnine and mercurial imbalance, the off-kilter opening montage is over. Anderson has cut from the South Pacific to a VA hospital and changed his visual style.