“The Master” is challenging, gorgeous, and forcefully weird, a critical darling and early Oscar contender, but you already knew that. It’s also the fourth film in a great, daring, ambitious project to depict the shadow side of our national life over the course of a century — what might be called Paul Thomas Anderson’s “American Quadrilogy.”
“There Will Be Blood,” “The Master,” “Boogie Nights,” and “Magnolia” do not seem to have been conceived as a series. They were produced out of order as far as history is concerned, marshalling aesthetic and thematic content that calls to mind Kubrick as well as Altman, Huston alongside Fassbinder. But no less than Coppola’s “Godfather” trilogy, which returned to a crime family’s Italian and immigrant roots in its second installment, or Gore Vidal’s historical novels, which took up “Lincoln” after “1876,” Anderson’s quadrilogy hangs together as an immense portrait of abused power, physical, economic, religious, political, and sexual. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), near the end of Anderson’s most recent film, expresses it best. “If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know,” he says. “For you would be the first in the history of the world.”
Mastery in all its forms is indeed key from the quadrilogy’s first moments, as Daniel Plainview’s streaked face comes alive in the sparks of his pickax. The hard labor of his quest for mining riches in “There Will Be Blood” ends up pitting him against another form of rough magic, in the person of Holy Roller Eli Sunday, but it begins as an attempt to control the ground on which he stands — even after his derrick in Little Boston has come in, his hands range over blueprints and maps, as though afraid they’ll slip from his grasp.
The film’s primal, lurid violence suggests an alliance of, and competition between, capitalism and Christianity that would seem too pat if not for the subtle ambivalence of its final sequence: two thwacks of a bowling pin can establish only one kind of mastery. Looking over his empire from a cold, empty California manse, a Xanadu of the Pacific, Plainview unknowingly stares disaster in the face. It is, a title card tells us, 1929. Whether or not he will succumb to the coming Depression, whether or not he is a Charles Foster Kane of the oil fields, “There Will Be Blood” makes clear — in the words of the Byron poem from which it takes it name — that “the king times” are indeed “fast finishing.”
Bookended by two dates, 1898 and 1929, Anderson’s tale of brutality and greed at the dawn of the “American Century” makes Plainview an implicit emblem of imperial sojourns and rampant profiteering, a gangster of the first order. Similarly, “The Master” uses a remarkably detailed portrait of two men to take up the moral content of World War II and the Cold War. Good intentions given extraordinary power lead, the film suggests, to their own unintended consequences. In a scene that powerfully echoes the end of “There Will Be Blood,” Dodd addresses wayward devotee Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) from his seat at a massive desk, light streaming in through the cathedral window behind. It’s a belittling, a forced exile no less damning than “I drink your milkshake!”: “Free winds and no tyranny for you, huh, Freddie?” Dodd asks, practically sneering.
Framed against the traditional mid-century story of victory, prosperity, and the fight against communism, “The Master” is a deeply misanthropic work of art, in which healers and heroes come to seem victims of their own desires for sex and power. Each of the main characters is an inversion of expectations. Freddie is not a comfortable suburban beneficiary of the G.I. Bill but a damaged shell, swilling poison and chasing tail; Lancaster’s dangerous charisma and unwillingness to be questioned is almost McCarthyesque; Dodd’s wife, Mary Sue, is no Eisenhower-era housewife, but a sometimes lewd and vulgar authority figure, perhaps the quiet master of them all.
By the 1970s, Anderson no longer has to offer a revisionist history of American life — the sense of decrepitude and decline that pervades both “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” two films seedy with drugs, sex, broken families, and broken souls, seems to have become part of the collective memory. “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master” are stories of control, of the application of power and its outer limits, expressed in hermetic, strange compositions. “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” sprawling, messy, nearly spinning out of orbit, are stories of losing control.
Indeed, Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), blessed with sizeable manhood and equally sizeable innocence — “Look at this jackknife!” he calls out at a party — is in some ways less the protagonist of “Boogie Nights” than Anderson’s San Fernando Valley, 1977. Coked up, tuned out, tastelessly decadent, the world of pornography becomes an exaggerated stand-in for Jimmy Carter’s American malaise. Despite flashes of affluence, the sets are tired, even grim; the real action in the film takes place in nightclub closets, where Dirk whips it out for customers at $10 a pop, or under the wan lights of an impersonal office, fucking for the camera. Sex, as in much of “The Master,” is less pleasurable than transactional — less the thing we want than a way to get it.
Childish as he may be, Dirk seems to have more of a grasp on his life than the adults around him, who debauch and divorce as though making a sad play for youth. Fast-forward twenty years and the same is true in “Magnolia,” a near-apocalyptic tale of contemporary Los Angeles in which the most mature and insightful character is a 14-year-old quiz show savant named Stanley. This may be what is most surprising about “Magnolia,” the weakest of the four films. Its central elements, which once seemed ham-handed, are now almost prophetic, linking the ideas of the quadrilogy as thoroughly as it links its cross-section of characters. The film’s coincidences and chance encounters make clear that Daniel Plainview’s desire to be alone, to achieve singular primacy, is no longer possible, if it ever was. Tom Cruise’s ladykiller reminds us that behind any cult of celebrity lay someone flawed and fragile and human. The troubled whiz kids and bad parents suggest that we inherit, for good or for ill, the world we’ve been given.
It isn’t that the four films need to be seen together in order to make sense. Each stands alone, more or less, on its own merits. But taken together they form a sort of counterhistory, an audacious attempt to portray 100 years in the life of a nation that deserves a place among the great film cycles. Isn’t this what we lament in movies and praise on television, the ability to recreate the texture and depth of the novel? At the very least, Lancaster Dodd’s statement about living without a master calls to mind Daniel Plainview, standing at the precipice and staring into the abyss; or Dirk Diggler, struggling to make do with his “one special thing”; or “Magnolia” and its infamous deluge of frogs. As Anderson sees it, we’re all subject to the mastery of the fates.
Check out “The Master” U.S. and international release dates, including 70mm and 35mm engagements, here, Indiewire’s picks of the best “Master” reviews here, Paul Thomas Anderson vs. Paul W.S. Anderson here; and Vulture’s roundup of critical interpretations of the film here.