Sublime Filmmaking Overcomes Unlikable Characters In The Master
By Alex Cranz
In the 1950s Hollywood grew fed up with the fickle requirements of Technicolor and moved in droves to its competitor Eastman color. Eastman color films could be churned out much faster but over time a problem was discovered with the film. The red tint faded more quickly than the blue or green. That’s why we often think of the 50s and early 60s as having this cool sea green tint to them. Most of the films of the time have literally lost their warmth over the decades.
Paul Thomas Anderson does not reassert that warmth into The Master and he also embraces the color palette of the 50s that has only come to represent the decade years later. Red does not pop in his film, but the bright green lining of a woman’s coat and the swirls of the ocean do. They liven up the world we are watching and draw our eye. Each beat that pulls us back to the ocean becomes a sudden balm against the struggle we’ve been witnessing. It is a way for us to relax even as these characters we watch, especially Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie are unable to.
Freddie Quell is a perpetual victim. He does not put himself into situations that make him victimized. This isn’t meant as a slight against him. This is just fact. He’s been put in the worst situations a child or an adult could imagine and he has survived them but they’ve left indelible marks and have, for all intents and purposes, broken him. To the point that he can only survive on self-administered doses of jet fuel, paint thinner, booze and sex.
What’s interesting is how thoroughly unlikable he is. Victims often engender pity in an audience. We may find some aspect of their character reprehensible but we are distanced enough from them to understand how they came to that moment in their lives to feel sorry for them because of it.
But Joaquin Phoenix thoroughly inhabits the role of Freddie Quell and puts up the armor of nastiness, abuse and disinterest that Quell has developed so that the audience cannot empathize with him or see the wounded man beneath. We see only what he has become. Not how he got there.
It’s an incredibly powerful performance but in Phoenix’s successful quest for realism at crafting a beast he alienates the audience. Consequently we cannot watch the film to follow Freddie’s story but to bask in the beauty of Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography and revel in the three incredible central performances.
There’s a moment not long after Freddie’s days of drifting draw to a close and he finds solace in his pointedly dog and master relationship with Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd that the two men sit down for a drink of paint thinner and booze and Lancaster offers to “process” Freddie. By now we and Freddie have seen the workings of Dodd’s cult. We’ve seen how ridiculous it is on the surface and we’ve seen the creepy devotion of his followers and we’ve watched as the man insinuates himself into every facet of his follower’s lives–to the point that he sits between his daughter and her new husband on their wedding day.
Freddie agrees to Dodd’s offer because he sees it as a game. He’s a smart man even if he’s directionless and tortured by a lifetime of psychological and physical assaults and he’s well aware of how silly Dodd’s actions are. But he agrees. And the process begins. It’s just questions asked and answered unblinking.
Paul Thomas Anderson builds a rhythm in the scene and Hoffman and Phoenix suck us in. Suddenly we’re Freddie too. Drawn whole heartedly into the cult. Lancaster Dodd’s “process” is powerful and in the hands of Phoenix and Hoffman it becomes absolutely arresting.
It’s hard after that for any scene to quite compare. It’s feels like the artistic climax of the film but because it comes so early much of what follows has its impact dampened. Scenes of honest to God brainwashing occur and Phoenix takes a moment to continue his assault on 1950s porcelain and they’re all very good. In another movie they’d be standout moments we talk about when the lights come up, but it’s too late. We’ve already spent two minutes watching a man undergo an absolute religious conversion and nothing can quite compare.
Amy Adams is the third central performance and she never gets anything as flashy as that moment between Phoenix and Hoffman. But maybe that’s because her character isn’t quite as flashy. She’s not a charismatic cult leader or an aimless drunken drifter running away from his demons. She is embroiled in the central love story of these two men. An aimless dog and the only master capable of taming him (a theme that is surprisingly outlined in a very on the nose scene early on).
She is, as Peggy Dodd, an anchor. She manufactures a code of behavior and keeps her husband tied to it even when his new friendship and love of alcohol can so easily tug him away. And Adams is an anchor in her scenes. A calm force of nature not to be trifled with and demanding respect with just a tilt of her head. She is not her husband’s follower, but the quiet voice of reason sitting on his shoulder–his sense of conscience, warped by her own malevolent soul.
And she is, perhaps, the closest thing to a villain such a film could have. Because they are all villainous people in their own respects. But their villainy is spun out of a desperation to survive. In the case of Lancaster Dodd, and especially Freddie Quell, they do what they must because PTSD (still unnamed in the early 50s) has nearly crippled them.
We are never quite given a glimpse of what has turned Peggy into such a zealot but Adams plays Peggy’s moments of concern and doubt in just the right manner. So she actually inspires the empathy we cannot find for her cult leader husband or his drifter follower.
But perhaps we’re not meant to empathize with any of them. Paul Thomas Anderson is a storyteller with a novelist approach to film. He doesn’t ask that you empathize. He only asks that you watch him tell his story and chew over motivations and desires of characters and marvel at stunning images and a singular understanding of film coloring.
His film is like the best books. We do not revisit them to spend time with the characters or be entertained by the action or romance. We return because they’re so damned fascinating. He’s a bit like Lancaster himself. Processing the audience and pulling us into his cult.