At War with “The Master”

Five weeks and two repeat viewings later, I am still having new thoughts about The Master. Upon its initial release, many critics had trouble grasping its meaning. Lisa Kennedy of the Denver Post called it “confounding.” Roger Ebert at least put it eloquently: “When I reach for it, my hand closes on air.” Many other top critics concurred. What these critics are describing is that the film never explicitly states its purpose; it is far too elegant and lyrical for that. But the film’s subject matter in fact requires mystery: The Master is an anti-war film, and a look back at the recent history of the depiction of war in cinema reveals that it addresses its subject in the only way a film can these days – through the story of a veteran re-adjusting to civilian life

Making an anti-war movie is a special challenge, mostly because the conventions of commercial filmmaking conspire to make war seem like such fun. It is the most simple and timeless narrative, a physical struggle between good guys and bad guys. Further, the awful realities of war that would turn off many viewers are often diluted by the distance and detachment created by the camera. Finally, many directors use war movies to simply create male fantasies;  as viewers, we get to engage in a lot of escapist fun – like riding in helicopters, driving tanks, and shooting guns – without any repercussions.

It is therefore very difficult to make a war film that successfully conveys an anti-war message – although Stanley Kubrick was a master at it, with Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove. Most filmmakers looking to address the horrors of war have turned instead to the story of the returning soldier. This was especially common with films set in the Vietnam era, when the plight of the returning soldier was highly publicized. Coming Home, Born on the Fourth of July, and The Deer Hunter all fall into this category. Now, we have The Master, which uses the story of one soldier’s return to America after World War II as a microcosm for an entire generation whose sense of morality was perverted by the horrors of war.

The film follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a man with more than a few demons to begin with. We learn very quickly that he has a serious drinking problem, some significant sexual dysfunction, and a family history of mental illness. But his mental problems are further exacerbated by the violent acts he was forced to commit in the name of country, and his attempts to find his place in post-war society are frustrating. He goes on a date with a beautiful co-worker and passes out drunk at the table. The next day, he gets in a fight with a customer out of anger and jealousy – Freddie asks the customer if he is married just before physically confrontinghim – and quits his job. When Freddie is befriended by a charismatic cult leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the appeal is clear: here is a man and a family who will accept Freddie, where the rest of society has not.

Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master”

Early in the film, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson demonstrates that Freddie’s problems are not just his own. In a debriefing session, Freddie is shown as just one among the many soldiers being prepared for the difficulties they will face in their return to society. What their commanders refer to as the soldiers’ “condition” would today surely be called post-traumatic stress disorder, and you can read much of Freddie’s erratic behavior that follows as a symptom.

The following scene, in which Quell is questioned by a military psychologist, parallels a scene in another film that carries a strong anti-war message, although it is not typically thought of that way: Taxi Driver. Much has been written about the influence Scorsese had on Paul Thomas Anderson, although most people point to the similarities between Boogie Nights and Goodfellas as evidence. But just as The Master can be read as a cautionary tale of the cultural impact of World War II, Taxi Driver depicts a man whose moral compass has been completely skewed by the horrors of the Vietnam War. In that film’s opening scene, Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) interviews for a position with a New York taxi company, and his potential boss, who had been robotically grilling him about his resume, eases up when he hears that Travis is a veteran. For just a moment, the two men bond over their shared history. Earlier in the scene, when the boss asks Travis if his driving record is clean, Travis grins and replies, “Real clean, like my conscience,” a clear allusion to the atrocities Travis saw, or possibly committed, in Vietnam. The boss takes him to task for cracking jokes on the job, and the smile immediately fades from Travis’s face.

We may never see another genuine smile from Travis for the rest of the film. This is the only time Vietnam is mentioned, and it sets the story in motion. Travis’s attempt at a joke – and his boss’s rejection of the attempt to forge a connection – perfectly encapsulates Scorsese’s theme of the emotional and psychological isolation of the returning soldier, though which the film show how deeply war affects society, even after the fighting has stopped.

Anderson seems to be up to the same tricks. As a filmmaker, he has always had his gaze fixed on the past. In Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, he revisits and explores iconic periods in American history. His other films – such as Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love – are set in the present but feature characters struggling to escape the ghosts of their own history. In The Master, he examines the period directly after World War II to ask a question still relevant today: how do we reconcile the darkness of war with the light of post-war optimism? Anderson posits that in times of collective existential distress, we seek moral certitude wherever we can find it – and I would cite our political division and the popularity of moral pundits like Sean Hannity on one side and Ed Schultz on the other as evidence.

But The Master is not a film built for mainstream audiences, and it is an outlier when considering how Hollywood has depicted war in recent years. We have of late seen a glut of films that glorify and sensationalize war; many of which were produced with full cooperation from the Pentagon. Films like the Transformers movies, G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra, Battle: Los Angeles, The Hurt Locker, Battleship, and Act of Valor, which starred actual active-duty Marines, are recruitment videos for the U.S. military masquerading as pop culture. Other films like Star Trek, Inglourious Bastards, and The Avengers offered pro-war narratives in less overtly political packaging.

None of this is surprising. Commercial filmmaking is designed to appeal to mass audiences and to preserve the status quo. The American anti-war movement has slowed to a crawl, mostly because militarism has been co-opted by the Democrats in an attempt to win votes. Americans of both parties still see war as the proper response to terrorism, especially because, with the exceptions of those who fight or their families, we are not asked to sacrifice. The pro-war films listed above dramatize the way we view war in this country: fleeting, distant, and not particularly impactful. Films like The Master – which show that the true cost of war is our very ability to properly function as a society – are few and far between.

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4 thoughts on “At War with “The Master”

  1. I, too, had a hard time coming to terms with “The Master.” Well-made? Definitely, it’s PTA, afterall, but I was left completely confused about its meaning. The Roger Ebert quote explains my reaction perfectly. Your dissection was really helpful.

      • I think that by being pointless, the movie depicts the pointlessness of fake cults like scientology, con men like ron hubbard and may be even war like you say. I came out of the movie thinking it was pointless and it struck me that it might have been left that way (a pointless ending, leaving all it’s audience with lots of questions) to show the pointlessness of a war torn soldier turning to a fake guru and his fake methods to find peace.

      • Good thought. I don’t know that I would call the ending “pointless” exactly – it did include Freddie deciding to break away from his master – but we are given little indication what the future had in store for either character.

        Not to generalize too much, but I think your comment speaks to one of the difference between art films and more commercial ones. Commercial movies wrap things up so that the viewer does not have lingering thoughts; art house films leave the viewer with questions, often good ones. Not to generalize or anything. 🙂

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