Paul Thomas Anderson's 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love might seem to be a strange film to act as a bridge between what now seem to be two very distinct phases in his career, but after seeing his new movie The Master, and thinking about it in relation to 2007's There Will Be Blood, I'm left unable to draw any other conclusion. I've been a fan of Anderson's from the beginning, and I feel no conflict in continuing to love his first three films -- Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia -- while regarding each of them as very much the work of a young man. This stands to reason, as Anderson was a young man when he made them: 26 when Hard Eight came out, 29 for Magnolia, and then after a three year gap -- not so long in the grand scheme of things -- we got Punch-Drunk Love, a superb film. No more or less superb than what had come before, I'd say, but gone now was the sprawl of characters and storylines that seemed like it might be his calling card after Hard Eight, gone was sometimes stretched-thin plotting that seemed like it existed only because Anderson thought it should (I'm thinking mainly of the middle of Hard Eight here), gone was the flashy stylistic debt to Scorsese and, save for a nod or two towards Popeye, Altman. And in fact Punch-Drunk Love is very specifically a film about a man who, while professionaly okay, was a social mess, a child who understood he should have gained something more in the years he's lived, and is frustrated to the point of violence that he hasn't. It's that among other things, but it's also that.
What it all really boils down to is style, both visually and narratively, and there's an unstructured looseness to Punch-Drunk Love that is as much to its favor as the almost mathematic precision of storytelling was to Magnolia. There was also a lot more empty space, and silence, and sunlight that wasn't necessarily warm but white and desert-like. California was starting to look more blasted than it had in his earlier films. There was somehow a new texture to everything. Even as Punch-Drunk Love exploited Anderson's sharp comedic instincts in the way that Hard Eight and Boogie Nights had (and for me, those moments are Boogie Nights at its best), there's a sense that something is being left behind, and Anderson was emerging from under the shelter of his influences and creating something that was very much his own. This would perhaps help explain why his daring, sinister, weird There Will Be Blood, Anderson's next film, five years down the road, feels, in the best possible way, like the work of, if not a different person, than at least a different artist.
Now here we are, again five years down the road, and The Master is, if anything, weirder and more daring. Maybe not more sinister, but that sort of thing is really more dependent on the subject at hand, and the subject at hand in There Will Be Blood, if I may be permitted to boil down that unclassifiable film into something easily digestible, is misanthropy. And as twisted as The Master can be, it's not misanthropic. Some level of misanthropy might have been assumed, given that everyone who hadn't actually made the movie (this obviously includes myself) possessed an undeniable certainty that the primary goal of The Master was to blow the lid off of Scientology, whose lid was blown long ago in any case, but the prospect that Anderson would dramatize that lid-blowing process, and use his frequent collaborator and no-fooling great actor Philip Seymour Hoffman as the film's version of Scientology's mysterious, pulp science fiction writing con artist L. Ron Hubbard was simply too wonderful, and made it impossible for anyone to credit the early protests (not vehement in tone, but more in the "wait and you'll see what we mean" mode) from Anderson and Hoffman that that wasn't exactly what The Master was going to be.
Anyway, Anderson makes it clear that among Freddie's problems is a rough bout of post-traumatic stress disorder, but I've seen some critics basically say "That's what's wrong with Freddie, now, moving on..." but there's clearly much more wrong with the man than that. The war perhaps freed his mangled brain to act as it had always dreamed to, but there's actual on-screen evidence that the war was just part of it. Whatever difference that makes to you – it makes a lot to me, as taking in all the evidence makes it much harder (and this is crucial) to hang Freddie’s frightening instability on any one peg – Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie as a bent, scarred, hungry, scrabbling little creature, or a rat who, in addition to being a rat, also dimly understands that he is losing his mind. It’s this understanding that drives him towards bottles of paint thinner, which, I can only assume, obliterates far more of what you’d want obliterated, and never mind the path it’s rotting through your guts, than anything you’d be able to find in a liquor store. It’s an astonishing performance in any case, one I don’t think I believed Phoenix, who before this was a very obviously talented actor, was capable of. It’s a big performance, too, like Daniel Day-Lewis’s in There Will Be Blood, though in the body of a character who is considerably less sophisticated, articulate, or industrious. But the hunch of Day-Lewis’s Plainview at the end of that earlier film is mirrored, which is not to say copied, in every step and every second of Phoenix’s Freddie in The Master. Plainview may have gotten there with regular booze, but he’d also been working at it much longer.
But perhaps Quell has found some kind of salvation on Lancaster Dodd’s yacht. The yacht is sailing at the moment because Dodd’s daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) is getting married (Dodd himself is performing the ceremony), so Freddie has stumbled already into what would appear to be a relatively high class celebration, where there is booze, and has, against all odds, been accepted. Freddie wakes up from a blackout and is ushered by a young woman into Dodd’s cabin, where Dodd tells him about a conversation they’d had the night before that Freddie doesn’t remember, something to do with Quell offering to work for him, and Dodd, seeing the damage and on-the-brink psychology radiating from Freddie’s entire body, invites him into his cult. Because let’s not beat around the bush here. Anderson doesn’t, as that word is actually used at one point in a terrific scene later on where an outsider (Christopher Evan Welch) overhearing Dodd’s line of nonsense grills Dodd with all the civility and reason he can muster, and it turns out to be just a hair too much for Dodd to bear. I’ve seen some talk that The Master treats the idea of this fringe, cult religion with ambiguity, implying that its benefits as a system of belief or as a guide for one’s life are not commented on one way or another. I think this is exactly wrong. There’s quite a lot of philosophical space between the outright, hammer-on-nail condemnation we all thought The Master was going to dish out and a non-committal “Well who can say if such things work?”, and The Master falls very clearly in the negative area. It doesn’t outright condemn, which may be the issue here, but it shows The Cause failing to work. But I’m pretty sure I’m getting to that.
As the world Anderson is depicting in The Master expands, which in this case means only that he’s expanding to more fully show the world of The Cause and the people who inhabit it, other viewpoints into Dodd and his work are allowed some brief but key introductions. With them they bring cracks to The Cause and Dodd’s façade, but the only progress toward anyone seeing through this madness is communicated by Anderson through the reactions Freddie, and even Dodd, have to these moments. Dodd’s son (Jesse Plemons) says to Freddie that his father is making everything up as he goes along, and shortly thereafter, when Freddie and Dodd are carted off to jail together, Freddie’s anger and frustration spills out, and in his tirade he repeats these same words. Later, when Bill, a long-time advocate of Dodd and his work (Kevin J. O’Connor), confides to Freddie that he thinks Dodd’s new book – the first being The Cause, this second entitled The Split Saber -- is “shit”, Freddie attacks him. Meanwhile Dodd, who has already shown his inability to deal with someone who demands that he explain himself (I did briefly flirt with calling this post Pigfuck!), finds himself, in the same sequence of scenes during which Freddie assaults Bill, gently cornered by long-time friend Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern), who is confused and concerned by a change in wording found in the new book, which she is smart enough to understand changes pretty much the entire basis of their shared beliefs. Dodd handles this moment poorly. So while Anderson’s mission is to not furiously dismantle Scientology, or cults similar to it, he does understand that common sense can take what’s laid before it and do the job perfectly well all by itself. These three moments, which I’ve described in the order they occur in the film, depict levels of disillusion. Freddie is easily won back (he’s very susceptible to any number of things), Bill was merely disappointed in the actual book, not in Dodd’s theories, whereas Helen…she’s probably on her way out. Maybe not for a while yet, but she can’t have walked away from her conversation with her messiah feeling particularly bolstered. Regardless, this is a superb scene, one that Laura Dern plays very well (I had no idea she was even in this movie), but Hoffman’s the show. Dodd is an ideal character for him, as it lets him do just about everything an actor could want to do, from humor to rage to despair, but Dodd is a man who has to keep it together, and he’s starting to have trouble. If there’s some ambiguity in how The Master regards The Cause, it shows through how Anderson writes Dodd. I think there’s some reason to believe that Dodd is not merely a charlatan, but might be someone who actually believes this nonsense – might, in fact, not realize that it is nonsense. If he doesn’t for most of the film, though, he’s beginning to, and his conversation with Dern could be the moment when the balloon pops.
The film ends on a beach shot that could be regarded as gentle, if we hadn’t seen Freddie in that exact position earlier, when his psychological future was considerably less rosy. Not that it’s especially rosy by the end, either. His one attempt to step away from The Cause didn’t go as he’d hoped, and all that’s left in his mind to deal with everything banging around up there is what Dodd taught him. The sad part is that at the end he doesn’t really understand that everything he went through with Dodd didn’t work. But it didn’t work. It couldn’t work.