“This happens. This is something that happens.”
-Stanley in Magnolia
There are multiple scenes in The Master in which characters sit across from one another, focusing in, unblinking, asking basic questions: “What is your name? What is your name? What is your name?” This is what Paul Thomas Anderson has been doing throughout his filmmaking career, sitting across from audiences and asking us to see human beings we might let our eyes slide over in the real world.
But Anderson has us trapped in a movie theater, and he dares us to look.
Some people get up and walk out. That has happened at almost every Anderson picture I’ve seen, including The Master.
I found the film both engrossing and difficult to watch. Anderson shines a light on self-destruction, and I don’t think he’s come up with a sadder character than Freddie Quell. Anderson gives us just enough information to understand some of why Freddie finds himself addled with alcohol and friendless, but, unlike so many films about addicts, he doesn’t pity him or make excuses for him. Freddie is violent and selfish and not in the slightest bit charming, and when Peggy tells Lancaster that Freddie is going to ruin them, I knew she was telling the truth.
And I didn’t want them to send him away.
Lancaster is less aggressively self-destructive than Freddie, but in some ways he’s just more polished. Anderson doesn’t hand the audience a guide for how to watch his movie (bless him), but Lancaster is little more than a con artist, saying things he doesn’t believe, manipulating people, and living off others’ hard work and generosity. It is clear throughout the movie that’s he’s always on the edge of being exposed and losing the illusion of a life that he’s created. And what’s under that polish? A man who enjoys drinking drinks spiked with paint thinner as much as Freddie does.
But I didn’t want to see him fail either.
The way these two characters intersect and connect and what their mutual affection does for each of them is an amazing thing to watch. Freddie isn’t redeemed, but he grows, just a bit. One of the saddest and most beautiful moments in the film is when he’s handing out fliers in Phoenix, starting out in his earnest but still Freddie way but slowly emulating Clark, becoming more effective. He’s just trying so darned hard. Lancaster begins to see the limits of his power and stretches to do better, even though the confines of what his pride will allow are damning. Again, though, because he loves Freddie, he is trying. In the end, Lancaster doesn’t want Freddie to heal completely, or even significantly, and Freddie doesn’t want to do any real work to heal. This becomes a blot that is ruining them both.
It’s heartbreaking and real and raw. Adding to this, of course, is the realism of the film itself–the way it’s shot makes the humans look human. The performances by Phoenix and Hoffman are authoritative. I knew Hoffman had this in him, but Phoenix is a surprise. Any soundtrack that includes some Ella Fitzgerald is all right with me, and the desert scenes are some of the most gorgeous Anderson’s given us. (Does they beat the raining frogs in Magnolia? No way. Never.)
This movie made me pay attention, and it made me uncomfortable. Ever since I left the theater, I’ve been thinking about things I don’t really want to think about, and I have to thank Anderson for that. He didn’t disappoint me.