Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, The Master, cannot separate itself from the looming shadow of his previous film, his magnum opus, There Will Be Blood. Anderson seems to love “loose adaptations.” His films somehow avoid historical pastiche as he strikes the delicate balance between zeitgeist and psychology. Blood was “loosely based” on Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, while The Master is “loosely based,” no matter how much Anderson or anyone else involved in the film may deny it, the history of Scientology and its leader, L. Ron Hubbard. Most importantly, The Master was also “loosely” created from some early drafts of There Will Be Blood, which is what lends to the amazingly similar mood between the two films.
To start, the film does do a lot of things well. The Master is the gripping story of the relationship between Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and alcoholism, and Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a religious movement, to be nice, or of a cult, to be honest. The film explores Freddie’s investment in this movement, “The Cause,” and Dodd’s unlikely friendship with him despite resistance from other members, including Dodd’s wife Mary (Amy Adams). Like many other Anderson films, there isn’t much of a plot. Instead, The Master relies heavily on character development, and the performances from Phoenix, Hoffman, and Adams, among the best of their respective careers, allow the characters to flourish.
Yet, The Master still seems like Blood’s little brother. A laundry list comparison of the two yields almost carbon copy similarities. For instance, The Master also contains an effective Johnny Greenwood score, but one whose strings’ tension doesn’t reach the unbearable heights of his Blood score. As FP Managing Editor Peter Lillis wrote, the score “takes on a soothsaying role as the characters fall into confusion, contradiction and repetition.” That said, the score is perhaps a bit too understated. The way his Blood score foreshadowed the eventual demise of Daniel Plainview was what made the film such a visceral viewing experience. His Master score, on the other hand, is disquieting at times, but takes a secondary role to the plot. When the main character of the film is already teetering on the edge of sanity, there’s no element of suspense when the score’s level of discomfort simply mirrors the character’s psyche.
Overall, where these two films are most similar is plot structure and theme. Let’s start with the similar themes: insanity, greed, religion, money, exploiting religion to make money, how money corrupts religion, and the unstable relationship between two men, one young, one old, one “a false prophet,” the other a substance-riddled beacon of instability and insanity (Anderson at least had the wisdom to flip the roles between the two films). With Blood, Anderson doesn’t take sides: both the religious and non-religious figure experience a demise at the end (one literal, one symbolic). Yet, with the end, Anderson found a solution to a seemingly solution-less film. The Master seems confused by comparison; while it contains the same scene in which the younger man visits the older man in his mansion to tie things up, The Master has comparatively less character arc and a sense of closure. Blood explodes at the shock of the audience, and The Master fizzles and disperses.
Perhaps Anderson felt he had answered all the questions he explored with Blood when making The Master. If there’s no Blood, perhaps The Master stands alone as an all-time great. But as it stands, the scale just isn’t as epic. The two companion pieces that come to mind, as comparisons, are Darren Aronofsky’s awesome The Wrestler and very good Black Swan. Both deal with performance: the former non-traditional, the latter more traditional. The more traditional pairs performance with issues of paranoia and hallucination, whereas the less traditional performance piece speaks about the individual’s addiction to the familiarity of violence and pain. And while neither of those films may reach the same “classic” status as either of Anderson’s films, Black Swan separated itself enough from The Wrestler to stand alone, even if inferior. The Master, on the other hand, is pre-2008 Eli Manning to Blood’s Peyton.
Jordan Mainzer is a student of History and Hispanic Studies at Brown University.He recently interviewed Alison Klayman, director of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, and reviewed the A$AP Rocky, Schoolboy Q, and Danny Brown tour and David Byrne’s book How Music Works. He is the editor of art, architecture, and design blog DRA and was recently featured on the blog One Week One Band writing about St. Vincent. He was also the film critic for Vail, CO tourist magazine KidStuff at age 6, which perhaps remains his greatest accomplishment.