The Master (2012) by Paul Thomas Anderson is the most bewildering film he has made to date. This film is not as story driven like P.T. Anderson’s other films, which in case the characters where very driven. This is not to say characters in The Master are not driven but what drives these characters are not as obvious. It is also, been made known that this film is about Scientology. Scientology plays a big part in the film but this is not what the film is really about. This film is more like a puzzle, to be solved.
The main character is Fred, who is played wonderfully by Joaquin Phoenix. Fred is driven by desire, to be more precise he is driven by his desire for alcohol and sex. This is made clear with Fred making concoctions, at times from paint thinner, or some photo developing fluid, to make alcohol. At one point early on in the film a fellow worker gets sick from drinking too much of Fred’s home made brew. The other drive of sex in excellently shown in an inkblot scene, where all that Fred can make out in the inkblots is either penises or vaginas. There is another scene where Lancaster Dodd, played by the amazing Philip Seymour Hoffman, is entertaining, by singing to the others in the house. During this scene Fred imagines all the women naked. These are the things that drive Fred but do not give us a better understanding of him.
Lancaster is the other main character in the film. This character is supposed to be Ron Hubbard the founder of Scientology. I am sure Anderson was not able to use Ron Hubbard’s name because of legal rights. Lancaster is a jovial and charismatic person, which I assume Mr. Hubbard had to be, to get people to follow him. What attracts Lancaster to Fred is unknown. It could be he sees Fred as a challenge. Roger Ebert suggested possible homosexuality, but he is even unsure of such a suggestion himself. I see no connect in that suggestion either.
There is a scene in the dessert with a motorcycle. Lancaster calls this exercise, pick a point and go after it. Lancaster goes first. The audience watches him drive off into the distance and disappear, only to return. Fred in next to try this exercise, but things do not go according to Lancaster’s plan. This scene of a guy on a motorcycle driving into the dessert, vanishing and then returning brings to mind a similar scene in another movie. This may not be an intentional homage or reference to The Brown Bunny (Gallo, 2003), but this movie comes to mind, at this scene. I would like to think this is as an intentional homage with a parallel theme on masculinity. Though it is hard to say after only one viewing of The Master.
This film is one of the most beautiful films filmed this year and technically precise, with great acting from beginning to end. What the story accumulates to is not as easily acquired. This film feels like a P.T. Anderson film but different. This film may polarize Anderson fans. I can see some calling it a masterpiece while other not being as impressed. This is a difficult film because like I a said before it feels more like a puzzle then the stories one usually finds in P.T. Anderson films. While most reviews may talk about not being able to understand this film I to not want to end with such a sentiment and suggest the film needs to be seen multiple times. There are some reoccurring motifs in the film, concerning images and how the film seems to operate as a circular tale. Upon my first viewing of The Master I think P.T. Anderson is suggestion if one is not mastered by one thing then one will be mastered by another.