The Master

The Master ★★★★½

Lay a tender sirloin next to a corndog, and a starving canine will wolf down and consume both without discrimination. Freddie Quell is the sort of fellow who consumes and is inherently destructive, lending himself toward the side of Paul Thomas Anderson's commanding allegory that depicts what humanity really is: animal, beast and brute. Lancaster Dodd, on the flip side of the very same coin, is what separates human from other animal; that is, cunning, self-deceiving, and prideful. It is pointless and altogether distracting to pose the question of who is Master of whom. What, then, is the proper question?

If Anderson had followed up his magnificent There Will Be Blood with the a comedy or some lighthearted work, that would be understandable. After all, who wants to be held up against their own unbreachable standard? Yet, Anderson decided to take his opportunity to craft a story that defies structural formula, daring the viewer to analyze its implications after simply the first viewing even while ever inviting further contemplation. This may be his most didactic work, and this third time in, I believe I am beginning to grasp it. What is so impressive is how strongly the whisking experience has endured! Watching these two supreme actors, Phoenix and Hoffman, spar and duet remains an immediately transfixing event, one grounded in the authentic reality of their characters. Folks, I've met people who are less opulent and far-reaching, yet equally egotistical as Dodd, and they are still around today; the same goes for Freddie Quell. The two men capture the essence of a certain attitude, one of egoism and condescension and vain philosophizing, and throughout the film their emptiness (which they mask so hard from self) becomes so painfully obvious that even they now fail to see it, finally.

It is not only possible, but easily achievable that we do away with all negative emotional impulses and bring man back to its inherent state of perfect

The question is not master of whom, but master of what? Freddie Quell may not be as enlightened as Lancaster Dodd, but each is as human as the other. Dodd has no real advantage in that sense, and Anderson recognizes this, perhaps even Dodd does. The tricky thing about mankind is that in his search for spiritual purpose he neglects his own material state; in other words, you can't focus so hard on one half of yourself that you forget about the other half. People can't fix people, if they could it would have happened a thousand years ago. Lies won't fix truth, because that's not what they're there for in the first place. To reference another brilliant film, we lie to gain an advantage. Dodd is just as instinctual as Quell, only more cunning.

Master of what? Of human nature, of one's own flesh? Of self? Master of a drunken bum on the sand, but much good comes of that in the end.

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