One of the best benchmarks for reviewing a film is seeing how well it stands up days after the initial viewing. Thoughts become focused and precise, where the fog of hype and bartering fades away (“Well, they did do that bad, but at least…“) and true feelings towards the film surface. I try to employ this with mostly every movie I watch. This is the reason why, day by day, I continually lose respect for The Master and PTA’s films in general. Throughout this marathon, I’ve watched the films of PTA and though I’ve enjoyed them, there was always something missing. Something that’s scratched at my brain for some time now, but after The Master, I realized what was lacking in Anderson’s films: meaning.
In The Master, we are greeted by Freddie Quell, a wrecked leftover from WW2 who possessed some serious mental issues, some fostered by disastrous exposure to brutal killings, some created by the puzzling grooves of his mind. He’s unpredictable and has a ravenous sexual appetite. When we are first introduced to Freddie in the opening sequence, including a scene of him humping a sand lady he’s fashioned on the beach, one can’t help but wonder: is this nurture of his nature?
Therefore, it’s even more interesting to see a cult leader, Lancaster Dodd take on Freddie, somewhat as a pet project. (P.S. This film is not only about Scientology. The themes in The Master can apply to any religious or educational hub). We’re promised to see an intricate examination of the human psyche as people are massaged into dangerous and cultish thoughts, but the result is much different.
Before I give my spill, I would like to at least explain The Master isn’t terrible, at least not in terms outside storytelling. Everyone here is absolutely brilliant and absolutely convincing in their roles; certain scenes would be vapid if PTA didn’t employ old regulars such as Philip Seymour Hoffman or Joaquin Phoenix. Though Amy Adams seems like a flat character (silent yet strong type woman is fastly becoming a caricature in film), these actors take on an interesting script and give dazzling performances.
That’s where it stops for The Master and most of PTA’s films: mere interestingness.
Now, unlike Magnolia, some of the questions left over from The Master actually please the viewer and stretches their imagination. Why does Freddie join Dodd’s religion? A lost soul looking for the answers to his questions? Why does Freddie defend him, sometimes physically? Does he join the Cause because it’s “cool” and something new? Why does Dodd take Freddie on? The mere booze he provides? Pet project? However, as the movie progresses, these fascinating questions evolve into major irritations. There are no hints and no points to the movie.
Additionally, what is the point of this film? Be careful who you trust in? When in doubt, add a sex scene? What meaning do the numerous sexual references have? Does The Master have any meaning? An often recurring pop-up in PTA’s films is that there is no meaning. Everything is merely interesting, never insightful. The Master never fully impacts because Anderson mixes characters with lazy story lines (not so much in construction of the script, but applying innate ideas to a film with substance). PTA has a talent for devising interesting and complicated characters in dramatic plots, but again, they stop there. Enigmatic people who convey no truth about life. Substance in films don’t equal sunshine and rainbows (American Beauty is controversial, yet it had substance and a point to it: how beautiful life is, yet how fleeting beauty is in one’s life, especially one stunted with droning complacency). An well-executed movie lets the moviegoer think for themselves and devise their own reasonable dissection of the film, enabling an emotional and mental connection. There is no such thing with PTA or The Master.
I’ve been patient with Anderson’s films, re-watching movies and trying to analyze those
movies where a point can be found. Yet, nothing. It’s like being promised a present but having confetti thrown in your face: it’s pretty and colorful (interesting), but what’s the meaning?
Therefore, therein is the most damaging element in PTA’s films. It is so bad that I will have to decline to watch Hard Eight for this marathon. The Master has all the right ingredients: wonderful leads, an engaging plot (if Anderson focused on cultism and not Freddie’s decaying life, would The Master have been rescued?) and beautiful cinematography. Except one is left out: purpose.