In defense of “The Master”

Alex Brubaker
Staff Writer

Possibly the most daunting task for film critics nationwide these past few weeks has been a proper critique of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film “The Master.”
How do you judge a film so shrouded in mystery, a film that leaves you staring catatonically into the abyss as you walk out of the theater while quietly muttering to yourself, “What the hell did I just watch? And what does it all mean?”
Anderson’s latest film and follow up to “There Will Be Blood” centers its narrative around a mentally unstable WWII veteran, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), and his adjustment to post-war America.
Freddie finds himself unwanted, alone, and craving for a community to accept and embrace him.
Along the way, Freddie becomes enamored with the charismatic leader of a cult, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Through Freddie’s eyes, we see the ascension of the Scientology-esque cult known as The Cause, and the power its leader has over his unwavering followers.
Phoenix, Hoffman, and Amy Adams provide Oscar worthy performances.
But this general narrative that appears to us on the surface is largely irrelevant. It’s the story beneath the surface, the story that requires active participation from the viewer that will most likely determine whether you walk out of the theater a happy customer.
This unseen story that Anderson is attempting to portray to the audience is what makes the film so mystifying, yet so attractive. The true meaning of the film isn’t necessarily within grasp upon first viewing.
I still don’t know exactly what “The Master” means to me, and I don’t know what Anderson was trying to convey (if anything specific at all), but that’s okay.
Having an ambiguous ending doesn’t translate as a failure on the directors part to “tidy” loose ends.
Rather, ambiguous endings expand the possibilities of what a good film can do for its viewer, instead of limit. A film like “The Master” will stick with you, if for another reason than it’s puzzling possibilities.
To be more concise, if you value a tightly wound story with a strong narrative voice, this film may not be for you.
To judge “The Master” on its narrative direction is to miss the intention of its creator and, more broadly, as cinema as an effective vehicle to say something important about the human condition.
I’m not dismissing the importance of an effective narrative in relation to the quality of a film, I’m simply ignoring its necessity with regards to effective art.
“The Master” should be judged as piece of art that attempts to communicate something about the true life to its viewer.
This artistic endeavor is the basis for which the film should be considered a failure or success, not narrative voice. In this respect, I believe “The Master” is truly a masterpiece.
This film will challenge you, engage you, but ultimately, it will reward you.
The film’s mastery comes from its near-perfect cinematography, engaging writing, award winning acting, and beautiful insight into cognitive dissonance and the lengths we’ll go to find meaning in our lives.
It’s about sex, aggression, and the true power of the Id.
It’s about charisma and influence.
It’s about freedom and choice.
It makes us question what or whom we are enslaved to, and who, really, is our master. Most importantly, “The Master” is a work of creative genius that lets the viewer decide on its interpretation. Paul Thomas Anderson, we are all witnesses.