Here, again, is Andrew Welch with his second turn as a Filmwell guest contributor. Andrew Welch lives in Denton, TX, and has written for Books & Culture, Relevant, and Art House Dallas. You can follow him at his blog, Adventures in Cinema, and on Twitter.
Let me tell you about Charles.
Charles was a stout man with gold-rimmed glasses, flushed cheeks, and gray hair. When he spoke, which he did often as a principal and Baptist preacher, he did so with a thick Southern drawl, lifting one corner of his lips, like Elvis. He carried himself solidly, projecting a sense of confidence, goodwill, and pragmatism that barely hid a burning, unrestrained temper. He was a savior of sorts — he saved my deeply indebted high school by folding it in with his own private school — but also a con man, a man adept at faking heart attacks and running Christian institutions into the ground. As The Dallas Observer reported, he’d allegedly done it in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and in 2010, when I was a sophomore in high school, he did it in Dallas.
Every now and then, I think about Charles. I wonder if he’s still out there bleeding other schools dry, bilking other teachers out of pay. I wonder, too, if he was ever the man he claimed to be or if it was all a performance? Part of me says no, it was just an act. But another part of me wonders if a man can really live two such different lives without one touching the other. At what point, I wonder, do the lie and the man himself become tangled up and twisted?
Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a key figure in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, arouses some of that same curiosity in me. As the charismatic leader of “The Cause,” Dodd claims he can return humanity to its inherent state of perfection through “processing,” hypnotic therapy sessions designed to awaken followers to their past lives. He also claims that humans have lived for trillions of years — ”Yes, that’s trillion with a T,” he confirms to one skeptic — and that present ailments are rooted in the past.
His assertions are so ludicrous we can’t help wondering if he really believes what he’s selling. But what Dodd really believes isn’t what’s important about The Master. Theology and science fiction are just a launch pad for a story with a different course in mind.
As others have said, The Master isn’t about Scientology, or even belief in a broader sense. What comes through the strongest is the dissatisfaction its characters feel, and their need for another person to fill a void in their life. Dodd’s beliefs are irrelevant, but his fragility as a human being, and his insecurity as a second-rate writer and thinker, aren’t. He needs to feel that, no matter how crazy his ideas might sound, someone believes in him, heart and soul.
Dodd wants that person to be Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a drifter who crashes the yacht party Dodd throws for his daughter’s wedding. Freddie belongs to Brokaw’s “greatest generation” but doesn’t fit the square-jawed, soldierly image Hollywood nurtured during the war and afterwards. His face is etched with a permanent grimace, and his scoliotic body is like twisted barbed wire. When he walks, he carries himself with the caution of a barefoot man stepping on glass. He craves two things: alcohol and sex. The first he consumes in whatever form he can find it — ethanol, after shave, paint thinner mixed with orange juice — but the second is in short supply around “The Cause.”
As a rootless sociopath, Freddie is a perfect project for Dodd. But for his part, Freddie isn’t haunted by a Dodd-shaped hole; he’s haunted by a teenager named Doris. In his first “processing” session with Dodd — the movie’s most masterful moment — he calls her the love of his life and thinks back to their last time together. He is domineering towards her, but she brings out a tenderness in him that no one else but Dodd can touch. And yet we wonder — could Doris have really made him a better man, or would her life with him have been a cycle of abuse and regret?
We never know, because Freddie and Doris are saved from even the possibility of that. Doris marries another man and leaves her home in Massachusetts for Alabama. And the last we see of Freddie he’s rutting with a blonde he picked up in an English tavern. “You’re the bravest girl I know,” he tells her, echoing Dodd’s words to him just after their first “processing” session together. He has left Dodd for good, because no matter how hard he tries, he can’t commit. “The Cause” can’t give him what he wants, but neither can his own lust. The movie’s last image is of Freddie curled up tenderly besides a female sand sculpture on a beach.
This last, haunting image has something in common with the endings of Anderson’s other films — it suggests that Freddie’s journey is far from over, and that what we’ve seen so far is only the beginning of a story that could go on. Will he ever find what he’s looking for, we wonder, or will he continue drifting through life in search of what he’s missing?
Some might say that sex is Freddie’s answer, or that it’s Anderson’s answer for him. That’s possible, but I think it misses the mark. I’m more inclined to see this last shot as an expression of what he yearns for rather than what he’s found. The sand sculpture is like a blank canvas, an altar to an unknown god. In that sense, The Master is a rejection of salvation via self-help, a well-composed, well-acted portrait of human dissatisfaction . Whatever we’re looking for, it can’t be achieved through sheer will power; we’re just too fragile and untamed for that.
But as a portrait of dissatisfaction, The Master may be too effective. The restless sense of longing Freddie and Dodd feel is transferred to us. We want something more too. Freddie doesn’t have to get the girl, and Dodd doesn’t have to become the effective, unquestioned leader he dreams of being, but Anderson leaves them so unfulfilled, so seemingly without hope or a sense that they’ve arrived anywhere that the entire journey is thrown into question. Nothing about that image of Freddie curled up on the beach comes close to matching the emotion of Claudia Gator (Melora Walters) looking straight at us at the end of Magnolia, effectively telling us that, whatever comes next, she’ll be okay; nor does it have the power of Daniel Plainview’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) resolute cry of “I’m finished!” at the end of There Will Be Blood, signalling his character’s damnation.
That’s not unlike life, of course. Some endings will always remain open, and uncomfortably so. Will I ever understand Charles, the man who brought down my high school? Will I ever understand how someone like him could permanently live on high alert, constantly on guard, constantly playing a part? Charles is my window into Dodd, and into The Master in general, and perhaps I can appreciate Anderson’s film in a way others can’t because of him. But where Anderson takes us is unsatisfying and diminishes the movie’s greatness. The comparison of art to life can only extend so far, after all. An open ending doesn’t have to be an unsatisfying ending. In the case of The Master, though, Anderson has drawn such finely detailed portraits of longing and hunger that he leaves us with the same sense of dissatisfaction and hopelessness — which is the truth, but it’s not the whole Truth