My wife and I found ourselves in a long, crowded, windy line outside a newly remodeled movie theater in Uptown, shortly before 1pm on Friday, September 21st, the year of our election, the year of our unraveling, 2012. The movie theater being a safe sanctuary of mine for since I can remember when; when I used to get picked up early from elementary school by my father, to go see the newest film of my choosing. When the film my father and I would see was a film that usually had one too many gory killing scenes, vampires, car chases or foul language. But, my father being one of the nicest people that I’ve ever known, indulged in my escapes from reality without apprehension. Maybe it was done out of the care and concern in which he had for a young boy, with thick glasses and braces; wanting to make sure that I found an outlet for the upcoming challenging years of pubescence of which he possibly knew he’d be absent?
Standing outside the newly remodeled movie theater with my wife, and eager to see the newest challenging, engaging and disturbing film by master filmmaker, Paul Thomas Anderson, I was hoping not to be let down . However, my first disappointment came when due to the show being almost completely sold out, and the theater manager’s desire to sell as many tickets as possible, the 1pm start time was pushed back to somewhere after 1:20pm, and much to my chagrin and two pleasant old women sitting on my right, we were not to be shown previews before the film. I asked myself, “Why am I paying 8 dollars, for a movie without previews?” What is this world coming too? My answer could easily be found while looking at the lemmings standing in line, waiting to drop another 500 dollars for the I-Phone 5. That is what the world has come to. That or the idiot I saw trying to back up his car on an on ramp to 35w north on Wednesday afternoon, during rush hour. That is what the world has come to.
The film starts with the brief typeset title, “The Master,” against a black screen. The viewer is then brought to the glimpse of water, the sounds of waves crashing, the ocean in crystal blue foam trailing behind what seems to be a moving ship. We are quickly introduced to the film’s protagonist, Freddie Quell, superbly played by Joaquin Phoenix, who should be polishing up a suit to next year’s Oscars. Freddie is the animal in man. He is the Id. He does things without question. He is perfect for the military, and that is where we find him, in the navy on board a large vessel, somewhere in the South Pacific during WWII. He’s shell-shocked, he’s violent and he’s an alcoholic. He is a man with many issues to deal with. In many ways, he’s the audience. We all have many issues to deal with.
After pleasuring himself with a woman made of sand on the beach why their ship is docked in a bay, Freddie begins to deteriorate before our very eyes. Eventually, after losing jobs at a department store where he takes pictures for customers, a job on a farm in Salinas, California where he hacks away at cabbages, he has gone too far over the edge with his concoctions of moonshine and is chased out of the camp by immigrant workers. Freddie as luck, fate or destiny would have it, finds himself aboard a yacht, somewhere in the bay of San Francisco. It is there, where he meets the devil, his father figure, his Master, Lancaster Dodd, played to entertaining precision by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who should as well be readying himself for an Oscars visit to the red-carpet. Freddie is introduced to Lancaster in the belly of the ship, and the first words out of Freddie’s mouth are, “How did I get down here?” Lancaster, dressed in a red silk shirt, in stark contrast to the ship’s holding color of grey steel, replies with an answer intimating that he can help Freddie. He knows that he is troubled; he knows that he needs help and he can help him. But, he does let Freddie know that he is “just a man, like you.” Freddie accepts his offer of employment and when he does, a supernatural, unexplained shadow falls across the face of Lancaster Dodd. The agreement has been brokered, the deal has been made. The Id of Freddie Quell has now joined forces with the Ego of Lancaster Dodd, founder of “The Cause.” We have now agreed to be taken on a journey. We are now the ship adrift on the open sea.
What transpires over the next hour and a half is a tug of war of the psyche. Scene after scene challenges the viewer to observe and maintain their focus upon what is transpiring on screen through the tortuous “process” imposed upon Freddie by Lancaster Dodd and his wife, played to Lady Macbeth steely perfection by Amy Adams. There is a scene where Freddie, after a couple of nips of moonshine, has agreed to answer questions from his Master, Lancaster Dodd and all the while, not blink his eyes. I was caught transfixed by the act, not leaving my eyes off of Freddie’s in close-up as he struggled to keep his eyes open, only to lose again and again and have to return to the start of the painful interrogation. We, the audience were now being put in the place of Freddie, it was apparent to me, that we were now under the “process” of Paul Thomas Anderson and his cinematic direction. Freddie, expelled from his garden paradise as an Adam of the military is now under the spell of his Ego, his personal Devil. Freddie becomes a trained attack dog under the tutelage of Lancaster Dodd and becomes his enforcer, much to the satisfaction of Mrs. Dodd, hurting anyone that tries to get in the way of “the Cause.” Freddie the animal in all of them, doing things they wouldn’t normally do, but would like to do, but know, that as the faces of “the Cause,” are unable to. Freddie learns all too well through the psychological torture that he has to endure in order to beat his alcoholism, his savage like tendencies, the awareness at the end of the film that is brought to his attention by Lancaster Dodd, that he “can stay with me if you choose, or you can leave, but if you do, I never want to see you again;” it is the knowledge that he’s going to have to choose to serve one Master. A man cannot serve both. The audience, whether we like the movie or not, we are going to have to make a choice; we are going to have to answer questions of our own. The questions may be a long time coming, and they may be in the blink of an eye, but I for one, don’t want my two hours back. I just might not have seen enough. Because, in the words of the bard from Hibbing, the coolest 71 year old man on the planet, “Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, But you're gonna have to serve somebody.”