Nervous Condition: A Review of ‘The Master’


August 17, 2012 by MK

“If the average civilian had been through the same stresses that you have been through, undoubtedly they too would have developed the same nervous condition.”

Notes from last night’s surprise 70MM screening at the Music Box in Chicago.

It’s quite fitting to review a film like The Master on a site called, The Mental Defective League.  Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is first and foremost a movie about mental illness, and that theme permeates the visuals, the soundtrack and most of all Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the lost soul of Freddie Quell.

But first, let’s get to what’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue: Is the movie about Scientology?

The answer to that is twofold: “of course” and “not at all.”

“Of course” because Philip Seymour Hoffman is clearly playing and reenacting a version of L. Ron Hubbard here in Lancaster Dodd.  From his looks, to the time spent at sea, to the billion year contracts, to books about “the Cause” to “processing” sessions – it’s all there and then some.  Anderson is not making much of an attempt to cover that up.  However…

“Not at all” because, in a lot of ways, that’s not really the point of the movie.  This is first and foremost Freddie Quell’s journey.  The story of a man like so many others in World War II America – nowhere to go before the war and nowhere left to go after.  Some men came back, moved to the suburbs and started the “Baby Boom.”  Too many others, like Freddie, returned with a cloak not easily shaken.  Anderson has always been interested in lost souls (see: Dirk Diggler, Barry Egan, everyone in Magnolia), and Freddie Quell is as adrift a character you’ll find in cinema.  With this in mind, the film takes on Freddie’s aimless, pinball struggle as he bounces from menial job to menial job, showing only a chemist’s talent for inventive alcoholism (hint: there’s a lot of paint thinner involved).  So, even though it’s titled The Master, this film comes from the warped and wounded perspective of The Pupil.

With that in mind, Anderson does away with typical story structure so as to make the film more of an immersive experience.  This is represented from time to time in the many shots of the ocean, fluid and hypnotizing as ships leave their mark and the evidence washes away.  The visual statement is used as a clear reminder throughout – these are characters “at sea” in more ways than one.

As for the much-hyped 70MM presentation, all I can say is the clarity and quality were astonishing – a fitting look to match the grandiosity and depth of the story.  Anderson certainly makes a case for keeping the format around.  My advice: if you can see it in 70MM, make it a point to do so.

People will have a hard time comparing The Master to Anderson’s other films.  He’s definitely pushing the edges of artistry here, adding some of Terrence Malick’s lyricism to the Kubrickian austerity of There Will Be Blood.  Oddly enough, it’s Punch-Drunk Love that stands as a companion piece of sorts.  Both films rage in anger and illness, with elliptical flourishes throughout.  But where Punch-Drunk finds love and salvation, The Master fights discovery – the tortured journey continues thanks to the broken promises of father figure and self-proclaimed guru, Lancaster Dodd.

The film truly wakes from its dreamy structure when centered around Hoffman and Phoenix.  Their scenes together are nothing short of electric – representing two sides of the same deluded coin, or what Lancaster Dodd might call, “The Split Saber.”  One interaction in particular (Freddie’s first session with “The Master”) will go down in the annals of film history for its raw intensity.

That intensity permeates the film, which may make it a tough watch in parts.  The Master makes Boogie Nights seem like a sitcom at times.  And it certainly doesn’t have the engine of Daniel Plainview’s “Manifest Destiny” to give it propulsion.  Instead, The Master floats into the slipstream of a larger, unknown force – past the horizon, a black dot that ultimately disappears.


5 thoughts on “Nervous Condition: A Review of ‘The Master’

  1. Galactica says:

    Great review !

    Is there a lot more in the movie than in the teasers ? I don’t want to feel too guilty watching them over and over and over…

    (Sorry for the english, I’m french. And by the way, because I’m french, I’ll see the movie in january…)

    • B.G. Loony says:

      Thanks! The trailers have been relatively vague so far, so I think you’re okay to watch (and re-watch). They do a pretty good job at conveying the feeling of the movie without giving plot details away. Sorry you have to wait until January!

      • Galactica says:

        My favorite teaser is the last one, the She wrote me a letter, I was almost crying at the end; there is like a ill narrative full of fever and bitter but sweet melancholy. I hope the movie is like that !

      • Galactica says:

        Oh, I just read that a lot from the teasers and trailer isn’t in the movie: as if we could see a glimpse of what Terrence Malick don’t put in his films…Interesting.

  2. […] honor of the recently, surprisingly seen, The Master, I figured it might make sense to take a look at its bizarro counterpart in the Paul […]

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