This weekend, we saw the movie The Master.
It’s a painful movie to experience. The characters are uniformly unlikable. In fact, I found it impossible to identify with a single one of them. They do unbelievable deeds, have faith in unbelievable creeds, utter unbelievable words. Except that I know that people do all these things, believe all these things, and say all these things. That’s one reason the movie is painful: it’s so real. Its reality pierces your soul like the fangs of a venomous, psychic serpent.
This is a movie worth seeing. No, let me amend that. If you only plan to see this movie once, it’s probably not worth seeing. It’s too agonizing to see just once. What I suspect is that if one watches it more than once, you’ll be able to unpeel layers of meaning from the misery that twists from the screen and screws into your head. I’ve only seen it once, so I can’t say that for certain, but I’m pretty sure.
This isn’t really going to be much of a review–more skilled people than I will do that. The performances are uniformly dazzling, the cinematography is stunning, and the score seeps into your mind, warm and mushy before it grows barbs and slashes your soul. This is surely magnificent film making. It’s literature on celluloid.
As to storytelling…well, I’m not so sure. More on that below.
The plot centers on Freddie Quell, played with oppressive brilliance by Joaquin Phoenix. He’s a twisted soul right down his face and his posture, a curious everyman who’s more of a nowhere man. The movie is set–mostly–in 1950, and Freddie is a veteran who’s troubled by alcoholism, suppressed sexual appetites, and a violent temper, to name just a few maladies. He has no family. His mother is in a mental institution and he doesn’t know where his father is. He claims a girlfriend, but she’s only sixteen and he abandons her. Indeed, since the plot appears out of order, it’s not clear exactly how young she was when their relationship started nor what it involved, but it is clear that she’s much younger than Freddie. He drifts through a number of jobs, including photographer. I’m guessing that profession is a metaphor for his life: he stands outside the world, looking at it through the lens of his damaged psyche, unable to participate. He can only observe, and the suffering from that disconnection deforms him.
So, we’ve got Freddie, his normal humanity quelled (see his last name; clever, huh?) by his tragic life. He’s adrift, on a journey to oblivion. In fact, the three major acts of the movie each launch with a beautiful view of the ocean, roiled by the wake of an unseen ship.
So he’s on a journey. By random chance, he stumbles onto a yacht and meets the Master, a self-help guru, or huckster, or true believer, Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Dodd is leader of a cult-like group called The Cause. It’s similar to Scientology with its mixture of faux-Freudian mumbo-jumbo, SciFi mythology, and obsessive obedience to the uber-charismatic leader, Dodd. The Cause provides the intimacy of a pseudo-family for anchorless souls like Freddie. In so doing, it traps them inside its constructed, magical version of reality. It also insists on strict adherence to the wisdom of the Leader, Dodd, even as that wisdom tends to meander in a drunkard’s walk.
Like everything else in this film, ambiguity fills Dodd, and Hoffman is masterful (oops, sorry for the pun) at portraying this. At the end, it seems pretty certain that Dodd’s making everything up as he goes, as his son says in the movie. But there’s also a sense that Dodd might actually believe his own schtick. The relationships we see unfold between Dodd and others, especially Freddie, are at once unbelievable and ring true, an amazing achievement by Hoffman and the rest of ensemble.
It’s as if the screenwriter and actors schooled themselves in Robert Altemyer’s research on authoritarian organizations.
Amy Adams completes the cast as Dodd’s wife. Mostly, she hovers in the background, either pregnant or holding a babe in her arms. But when she speaks in private to Dodd or Freddie, she shreds her target with surgical precision, her razor-like words slashing out from her sweetly smiling face. A truly awesome performance from the ever-capable Adams.
I see I’ve kind of rambled into a semi-review, so I’ll mention Laura Dern’s performance, too. She’s equally chilling as the always-smiling, wholesome true believer. But then Dodd’s teachings change a smidgen, and a doubt flickers in her countenance. She asks Dodd a question, and he rages at her. She’s got the tiniest of roles, but she sheds sparks.
I have to point out in passing a sexual subtext of the film I’ve not seen in other reviews. Early on, we see Freddie on a WWII beachhead humping a sand-castle golem of a woman that he’s sculpted. Shirtless sailors cluster surround him and watch, including at least two who stand together, arms about one another, in an embrace whose meaning is obvious to any gay person. The foundation for the strange intimacy that later develops between Dodd and Freddie is left as a mystery, but one wonders if the director didn’t mean to hint at a suppressed sexual longing, quelled (there I go again) by social conformity.
That’s the basic framework. This is about Freddie’s journey. I originally wrote “quest,” but that’s not the right word. His journey passes through the aimless physicality of drunken debauchery to the false intimacy of Dodd’s family, to doubt and then to…nowhere. He’s not on a quest. He’s leading a pointless life in which living is constantly quelled (I promise I’ll quit) by circumstance and chance.
The presentation reminds me of quantum mechanics, where electrons don’t have definite position or momentum until we interact with them. Even then, we can measure only one aspect. If we know position, we lose the ability to measure momentum and vice versa. This story of Freddie’s life is rather like that. The camera focuses its eye on bits of Freddie’s existence. Sometimes we see him looking for sex, or angry, or drunk. Other times he’s looking for intimacy and rejecting the sensual. Sometimes he flares from one extreme to another in a terrifying burst of violence. Sometimes we see outward events, sometimes inner, but never both at once.
I’d also like to reference another interpretation to this story, pointed out in this insightful and recommended review. Freddie is a metaphor for the bestial Freudian id, Dodd for the scheming ego, and Dodd’s wife for the demanding and judgmental super-ego. Understood in this way, the story has yet more layers of meaning.
So, it’s brilliant. It’s literature. The technical aspects of film are flawless. Why, then, did I express some doubt about the storytelling?
Nowadays, when I read a novel or see a movie, I try to learn from it. What techniques can I pick up that I can use in my own work? Watching actors–especially actors as skilled as these–helps me write better physical descriptions of how my characters behave. Seeing the multiple layers and threads stitched together in this movie helps me learn how to do the same.
What’s missing here for me is the hook.
Maybe this movie doesn’t need a hook. I don’t know. As I think about other layered movies that I’ve enjoyed over and over, movies like Mulholland Drive, movies where the allegory is more important than the surface story, there is a hook. In fact, David Lynch gives us multiple hooks in his masterpiece, even though they slip through our fingers before we can grasp them. The story might be told out of order, as in Mulholland Drive, but we understand that the characters want something. Lynch’s characters are on a quest, even if it’s elusive and in the end leads nowhere. They are after something. There are obstacles. There are stakes. These things anchor the audience and the reader, draw them into the story, and enhance the fictive dream.
I understand that this is about a man adrift. He’s buffeted by random encounters and events. His world is much like the in the quantum world of that electron. In one scene, we hear MacArthur’s speech accepting the Japanese surrender while Freddie climbs through the bowels of a ship to his illicit still, hidden in a bomb. He lives in the substrate, underneath the world, barely able to break the surface for an occasional gasp of air. The pollution of desperation, lust, control, and obsession corrupts what he occasionally manages to inhale. He really has no stakes. It’s like he doesn’t know what stakes are.
Except…how about Kafka’s The Trial or Camus’ The Plague? These, too, are stories about obsession, destiny, and the human condition. They are about alienation and despair, with characters who are without a spiritual anchor. Even movies like Vertigo consider these themes. But these examples seem far superior as stories. To be sure, The Master is true to life. Its world is more real than those of Camus, Kafka or Hitchcock. Its gruesome vision of life as disordered chaos holds an unrelenting mirror to the world in which we all live.
Tom Clancy reminds us that the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense. Clancy is surely no maven of literature, but he spins a compelling story.
The world of The Master exposes the most loathsome aspects of modernity. On a metaphorical level, the movie makes sense. It’s compelling, in much the same way any portrayal of human tragedy, however horrifying, is compelling. Certainly the power of fiction is metaphor and allegory. This film has those elements in spades.
I just wish that the movie had a story as compelling as its themes. Hitchcock said that the audience cares about the characters and that the plot is there to give the characters something to care about. Most novels–and movies, too–strive to connect the reader to the characters and hence to the plot. That’s the hook I mentioned above: an emotional connection with the characters on the page or on the screen. We expect that. We yearn for it. You won’t find that in this movie, despite the brilliant performances and direction. I’m sure that’s on purpose, since these people are far more talented than I ever will be. We’re distanced from the characters, from feeling their emotions. What’s on the screen is an artifact, even though it’s also a grim reality.
So, yes. This is a masterful film (there I go again). I’m sure I’ll watch it many more times, and tease more meaning from it. But I don’t think I’ll learn much from it that I’ll be able or want to bring to my own fiction.
That’s probably my loss.