The Master: A Look Back on the Works of PT Anderson, Pt. II

This is Pt. II of a two part series on Paul Thomas Anderson. Pt. I, on his styles & influences, can be found here.

Of all the big releases of 2012, perhaps no art house movie is more highly anticipated than Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master. The film spent the past weekend breaking limited release box office records, and it’s not without reason. PTA, as he’s so lovingly referred to as, has made only five other films since his debut in 1996, but nearly everything he’s made has been an unimpeachable masterpiece, and his 2007 film There Will Be Blood was the most frequently picked film for the top of “best of the decade” lists . He has become the modern day Kubrick or Scorsese, his initials shorthand for cinematic greatness in his time. But while PTA’s first five films (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood) are all recognizably his, there’s been a noticeable shift in style and tone over the course of his filmography.

The Themes of Paul Thomas Anderson

Anderson’s films have shifted in style from kinetic to deliberate, in influence from Scorsese/Demme/Altman to Kubrick/Huston, and in tone from open and warm to more mercurial and strange, but three central themes have prominently stuck throughout his filmography: the regret of past decisions, the overwhelming feeling of loneliness, and the complicated relationships of fathers and sons, both literal and figurative.

Hard Eight’s central relationship between Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) and John (John C. Reilly) is marked as that of an adoring son following his unknowable father. Sydney comes into John’s life as a forceful, almost mythic mentor to the wounded young man. Sydney cares for John, helps him find his footing in Vegas, and helps him with his mistakes. He disapproves of John’s toxic friend Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), and when everything goes to hell in a poorly thought-out kidnapping scheme, Sydney plays the (mostly) calm and stern father guiding his son through the trials and tribulations of life. John has a chance at a better life thanks to a surrogate father who loved him like he was his own son.

But Sydney’s actions, noble as they may seem, are motivated not out of pure kindness, but by overwhelming guilt and regret. Sydney’s past life as a tough guy has led to a lonely path, and his only connection is borne out of guilt over killing John’s father. When that past comes back to expose him, he goes to extreme lengths to ensure the truth doesn’t come out. But while Sydney is never fully exposed, a continued relationship with John would lead to catastrophe. He’s made sure John doesn’t live a life of solitude and loneliness, but he can’t do the same for himself.

Boogie Nights ups the ambition with a tale of a bizarre family of sorts with their own regrets and bouts of loneliness. Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) is a man out of time and place, a black man who loves country-western music and who is ridiculed for it. Jessie St. Vincent (Melora Walters in a small but underrated role) is the porn actress who fell for the star, Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler, only to be perpetually unnoticed. Scotty J (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is equally lovesick for Dirk, but even more hopeless and lonely. Little Bill (William H. Macy) is cuckholded left and right, eternally sad and pathetic. Some of these characters catch a break: Buck and Jessie fall in love, and while the loan for Buck’s dream business is turned down in a humiliating scene, a twist of fate gives him a second chance (albeit at a great price). Others, like poor Little Bill, aren’t so lucky.

The central four characters, father figure Jack (Burt Reynolds), mother figure Amber (Julianne Moore), son Dirk, and daughter Rollergirl (Heather Graham) are making up for their own deficiencies. Dim-bulb Dirk pursues a career in porn after it provides him both stardom and a surrogate family. Rollergirl’s decisions result in judgment from a hypocritical, morally superior culture that exploits her body while chastising her for using it. Sad, poor Amber plays mother figure for Dirk and Rollergirl only after her cocaine addiction and porn-career yanks her children away from her. And loving as she is, it is she who introduces Dirk to cocaine and sends him on his downward trajectory.

The central father-son relationship between Dirk and Jack is, of course, the emotional lynchpin of the film. Jack gives fatherly advice to Dirk during his porn audition while Dirk looks for a father’s approval in the early going of the film- a scene where Dirk and best friend Reed Rothchild (Reilly) come to Jack with an idea for a secret agent porn film is particularly priceless. But with any father-son relationship comes an inevitable conflict as Dirk wallows in excess and petulant vanity while Jack’s stubborn nature further pushes Dirk aside.

Magnolia almost plays as a thesis on Anderson’s key interests: fathers Earl and Jimmy (Jason Robards and Philip Baker Hall), filled with regret for their misdeeds towards their children Frank and Claudia (Tom Cruise and Melora Walters), both of whom lives of loneliness, cut off from any human connection, numbing their pain with women and drugs, respectively. There is also the side story of two other children, the grown Donnie (William H. Macy), and Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), still in his formatives years. The former is in boozy self-pity after his parents took his money. The latter is perfectly aware that his father is using him. Anderson provides all sides their sympathetic ears: Philip Seymour Hoffman as a compassionate nurse/sounding board for Robards, and John C. Reilly as the big-hearted cop who stands as a chance for love for Walters. Anderson builds up our sympathies for the ostensible villains early on: both old men are dying of cancer, one has been cheated on by his now repentant trophy wife (Julianne Moore), and both have seemingly nasty children who want nothing to do with them. But as the film goes on and the parents’ misdeeds are revealed, their children’s behavior makes more sense. It’s their errors that have defined their children’s lives, no matter how much they’ve tried to escape it. Whether they try to drown their childhood woes in booze, in drugs, or in sex, they’ll forever feel the pain of being betrayed by those they needed the most. As stated by a few different characters in the film, “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us”.

Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) of Punch-Drunk Love never deals with his real father, but rather with a series of browbeating, emotionally abusive sisters who have made him the wreck of a man he is. Like the fathers of Anderson’s earlier films, the sisters don’t mean to be horrible to their brother; it’s more out of lack of consideration for his feelings. Barry is then a lonely and alienated man, and his complete lack of understanding of how other people act lead him to a simultaneously funny and melancholy encounter with a phone sex operator; when that decision comes to back to harm both him and his new love Lena (Emily Watson), he’s filled with overwhelming regret and anger.

The key to Anderson’s early films is that he has such a sympathetic ear for everyone involved. Not every relationship can be repaired: Jack and Dirk reunite, but Claudia and Jimmy do not meet again, and Earl and Frank’s reunion is filled with pain and anguish. But while there’s no way to heal every wound caused by a troubled life and the betrayal of a parent, there’s a sense of hope that they can move on—or at least be understood. The power of a compassionate ear, or even a real chance at love, is the most valuable thing in the world.

There Will Be Blood marks the point where Anderson’s optimism shifted. The director has not abandoned empathy, but he has found a story where that sense of optimism wouldn’t fit. The film deals with the same sense of regret and loneliness: Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a man alone, deeply paranoid, suspicious, and downright hateful towards other people, but a strange twist of fate brings him a surrogate son he raises as his own. Hateful as he may be towards others, Plainview shows overwhelming warmth for H.W. (Dillon Freasier)—he is not just a prop for a deeply cynical man. But when another, more cruel twist of fate takes away his son’s hearing, Plainview’s inability to relate to him any longer forces him to make a devastating choice of sending him away. When he finally brings H.W. back, it’s more out of his own guilt than anything else, and the damage has been done.

Where Punch-Drunk Love was a story of an alienated man finding his connection to society, There Will Be Blood is about a man losing his. Day-Lewis’ performance grows more animalistic and savage as the film continues and as he becomes a man without any connection to humanity. His ambition and greed takes over his soul, and his final confrontation with his son shows a bitter, cruel, resentful old man unwilling to maintain any connection to a boy who wants to make something of his own. He ends the film as a man with nothing, a Charles Foster Kane for a new age, isolated in a mausoleum of a home.

Of course, that’s not the only father-son relationship in the film: Plainview’s contentious relationship with Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) plays as a more metaphorical father-son connection, with the importance of capitalism on the rise of certain religious organizations clear. Eli is every bit the nasty, hateful, forceful son that one might expect to come from Plainview, and while Plainview’s anger towards Eli first comes out of the preacher’s arrogance, self-importance, and generally being a little weasel of a human being, it grows as more of an exaggerated hatred for humanity, as well as a sense of hatred for someone who built something off of Plainview’s own success. Tone he final confrontation between the two shows the transformation complete: Plainview’s life is not defined by his relationship with his son, but by the relationship with the figurehead of a bastard child of his business, and his resentment of that fact leads to the film’s bloody conclusion.

PTA’s thematic obsessions—regret, loneliness, and the difficult relationships between fathers and sons—are all filtered through tales of capitalism gone awry and dreams that are either unrealized or turned into corrupting influences. Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, at the end of the day, take a look at America as a nation filled with people whose lives are defined not by their successes but by their failures, both professional and personal. America is a nation of lost souls, either by their own doing or by pain inflicted by others.

Conclusion & PTA Defined

But underneath all the themes and stylistic influences, what makes Paul Thomas Anderson’s films his are not the nuts and bolts of his plots, but those big, inexplicable, unpredictable moments that pepper his films. Boogie Nights was noticed for its stylistic similarities to Altman and Scorsese, but the finest moment comes from a harrowing night at Rahad’s pad with Alfred Molina as a coked-up lunatic, Dirk Diggler at his lowest ebb, and some strange kid throwing firecrackers (Rahad’s explanation: “It’s Cosmo. He’s Chinese”) as everyone on-screen and in the audience—except Rahad—flinches. Magnolia is one of the most narratively dense and thematically ambitious films of the past twenty years, but damned if everyone’s not going to go out arguing about the whole cast singing “Wise Up” in a beautiful moment of relief, or the polarizing, exhilarating rain of frogs at the film’s climax.

What’s great about Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood, then, is that they’re not peppered with these scenes: they’re made up entirely of that unpredictable, nervy energy. Even beyond Punch-Drunk Love’s “He Needs Me” sequence and There Will Be Blood’s oil derrick set-piece and “I drink your milkshake!”, these films are made of the unique, arrhythmic style that makes Anderson the most vibrant and fascinating auteur working today, one the world will keep watching until, to paraphrase Daniel Plainview, he’s finished.


Max O’Connell

Max O’Connell is a senior film studies and theatre student at Ball State University. When not watching films or reading/writing film criticism, Max enjoys arguing with people. Right at this moment, he is arguing that anyone who thinks E.T. is anything but a masterpiece is a low down dirty dog. He also bears a striking resemblance to one of the guitarists of the now defunct indie band Ponytail [Editor’s note: only sorta]. Go read more of his blatherings about film here.

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