dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
“You seem familiar to me.” So begins Lancaster Dodd’s (sober) introduction to future protégé Freddie Quell. Yes, we will soon realize that this ice breaker is Lancaster's attempt to lay the groundwork for future manipulation of the troubled young man, but the phrase also seemed to me a sly acknowledgement by writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson of his own affinity for the same theme: the troubled relationships between domineering father figures and lumps-of-clay son figures.
I have heard it said that most great, devoted novelists continually rewrite the same story. The meaning being that these folks tend to be driven, obsessed with certain ideas, that they’re wrestling with some sort of inner turmoil. Revisiting the same theme again and again acts as a sort of therapy, allowing them to exorcise demons. And since therapy never ends, neither do these artists’ career long narratives.
Now I would never accuse Paul Thomas Anderson of repetition (his films cover such a wide range of topics, characters, narratives, storytelling techniques, and visual styles that he remains one of the few artists whose work continues to surprise me), but he clearly has a thing for father-son relationships. So, though much has been made of The Master's pointed criticisms of ___________, the film is less an expose of ___________ than an exploration of the fraught relationship between a charismatic religious leader and an emotionally troubled, unstable young man. (Though, it should be noted, ___________ is sure to be none too pleased by its fictionalization as The Cause in Anderson’s film).
Of course, it would be too simplistic to label the relationship between Lancaster and Freddie as a simple case of parasitic manipulation. Indeed, as the film progresses, we realize that these two men are actually quite co-dependent. The directionless, demon/booze-filled Freddie needs guidance, he needs help. Back from World War II, he is a victim of what, back then, was so callously referred to as battle fatigue. He, like so many other veterans, needs to find a way to not only readjust to civilian life, but to also ease his emotional pain. (Incidentally, The Master would make an interesting double feature with William Wyler's heartbreaking The Best Years of Our Lives.) What the man needs is therapy and substance abuse-counseling; what he gets is indoctrination into a cult.
Lancaster, meanwhile, needs to better hone his cult-leader skills. He needs a protege to test out new theories. This is a religion, after all, that even Lancaster's actual son admits, "he makes up as he goes along." Through his use of the impressionable young man, Lancaster is able to understand what makes this cult-coveted mindset tick. He is better able to hone his religion toward the end of preying on such minds.
Now, I'm hesitant to make this next point because I'm afraid it might be too simplistic and that I might be way off base, but I couldn't help but get the feeling that much of The Master was also a comment on the way that fanatic religious organizations prey on sexually frustrated (and, yes, emotionally unstable) young men, getting them to divert their energy toward nefarious ends. Meaning, basically, Freddie just had to nut before he could get all that Cause shit out of his system. Of course, I could be completely wrong about this. So just ignore this paragraph.
One final note: as we all know, digital is here to stay. Whether we like it or not (me, not), the economics of the film industry have dictated that it is no longer viable to shoot films on celluloid. So, if film is on the way out, I'm glad that Paul Thomas Anderson is making it go out with a bang. Shooting on super expensive 70mm film stock, Anderson has shown all that celluloid is capable of. If you're going to see this movie (and you should) make sure you see it in a theater with 70mm projection. Yes, shrunk down to 35mm stock The Master, like all Anderson productions, is still a visual feast, but you really haven't experienced this movie if you haven't witnessed the rich, inviting texture of the 70mm image. With The Master, Anderson has composed the best counter-argument to the defeatist assertion that digital film-making and home viewing are the way things ought to be.