Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a young World War II Navy man, returns from sea to a changing America, a world that is very different than the place he had called home. Like most men who returned from “over there,” Freddie tries to “fit in” the post-war society by finding a job. He becomes a photographer in a department store, and although he enjoys the company of one particular sales girl, he gets fired for drunkenly assaulting a customer. After his disappointing change in employment, Freddie finds work on a cabbage farm, until his own alcoholic concoction of paint thinner and jet fuel poisons an elderly co-worker. Freddie is then ran out of town.
Quite simply, Freddie Quell is a mess. Violent, sexually obsessed, and an alcoholic in the most extreme sense (the guy drinks straight Drain-O for goodness sakes,) for the prologue scenes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master’, Freddie is as aimless as a ship without a sail, an automobile without a steering wheel.
However, one night during his drunken wandering, this walking disaster finds his way onto the ship of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is a writer, doctor, theoretical philosopher, nuclear physicist, and a ‘hopelessly inquisitive man.’ But more importantly, Dodd is a leader of an American spiritual movement known as ‘The Cause,’ which seeks to abandon the trauma and pain of past lives in order to find happiness, meaning, fulfillment, love, etc. In short, you take one part L. Ron Hubbard, one part Philip Seymour Hoffman, you end up getting Lancaster Dodd, and also a pretty convincing 20th century cult. Instead of drinking the Kool-Aid of Jonestown, the followers of The Cause drink in the words of their Master, who is as eccentric as he is charismatic. Hoffman exudes the righteous confidence that not only brings this character to life, but makes Dodd seem as realistic as any religious figure that there ever has been.
‘The Master’ centers around the relationship between Freddie and Dodd. The man who seemingly has all the answers, and another that seems to be the human incarnation of a giant question mark. Dodd becomes fascinated with Freddie, convinced that he knows him from some sort of past existence, that somehow Freddie had known the Master long before he had stowed away on his ship. The Master puts Freddie through a period of intense psychological analysis, what Dodd calls ‘Processing’, in which he asks Freddie questions of his life’s previous experiences. Through this interrogation, we find out that Freddie is even more troubled than we had originally thought; a dead father, an institutionalized mother, a shameful sexual encounter with his aunt, and a love that he abandoned when he left for the war. We discover this past trauma, and lost love, and the root of most of Freddie’s dysfunction.
Dodd decides that Freddie must join The Cause in their travels, even though Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams) and other disciples remain skeptical of this unstable outsider. Freddie continues a pattern of boozing and violence, assaulting a man who debates with the Master at a dinner party, as well as getting arrested while trying to defend Dodd against a group of policeman. It becomes apparent to the following and to the audience that, despite the ‘treatment’ and attention he is receiving from this pseudo-spiritual guru, Freddie is not getting better. He remains an incredibly flawed, broken person.
As the story continues, it is also revealed to us that Dodd, this so-called Master, is also plagued with ethical shortcomings and a great many moral contradictions. His own son claims that he is a fraud, simply improvising his spiritual revelations, and when his latest book is published, Dodd is criticized by both his close friends and his followers. As the audience, Anderson clearly reveals to us that the Master is a slave to his own moral piety; seemingly a prisoner to his own philosophies.
But make no mistake; through all the complexity and thematic symbolism, ‘The Master’ truly is about the relationship between Mentor and Disciple; The Master and the Student. But it really is more than this. There is authentic friendship, and even deep love between Freddie and Dodd. Not only was Freddie lost before meeting Dodd, we come to believe that Dodd himself wasn’t fulfilled until encountering Freddie as well. It’s as if Freddie represents everything that the Master is seeking to do away with, but he simply cannot leave it behind. He is still attached to his vices, and the relationship with Freddie, although fulfilling, seems to be destroying him.
Anderson is truly a craftsman when it comes to filmmaking; an in-depth artist and director in equal parts. The way the film is shot, acted, and written truly is mesmerizing. As a viewer, I was enthralled by ‘The Master,’ and as much as I explained above about the actual plot and my own interpretation of the meaning, it is obvious to me that I have merely scratched the surface when it comes to fully understanding it entirely. It really is a movie that is so dense and complex, you truly could write a novel discussing everything that puts it together. Like Anderson’s 2008 film ‘There Will Be Blood,’ ‘The Master’ not only demands a second viewing; your brain is already shouting to see it again as you walk out of the theater.
That being said, with all the praise that I give this film, and as amazing as much of it is, ‘The Master’ is not without its own moral ambiguity on top muddled sexual imagery. I feel that there are a few scenes where the audience is truly lost, wondering of the purpose behind certain storytelling decisions. While Freddie is obviously a sexually driven person, Anderson plunges us head-first into his depravity, leaving us covered in his perverse ugliness. Also, the ending of the film leaves us asking, “What was it all about?” Perhaps this was Anderson’s intent. We, like Freddie Quell, find that the more we are immersed in this cult culture, the less that we truly understand, and we, also like Freddie, end up coming out of the experience more confused than changed. However, this ambiguity is really my own qualm with what is otherwise an incredible movie.
One last note on ‘The Master’: I truly believe that in this movie, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman have given performances that may be the best of their career, and also will end up being the best two performances you will see this year. They own the screen with such ferocity, at times leaving us awestruck. Too bad for both of them though, because Phoenix openly hates AMPAS and everything connected to the Oscars, so I feel that neither of them will truly get the recognition that they deserve.
“It’s total, utter bulls***, and I don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t believe in it. It’s a carrot, but it’s the worst-tasting carrot I’ve ever tasted in my whole life. I don’t want this carrot. It’s totally subjective. Pitting people against each other … It’s the stupidest thing in the whole world.” -Joaquin Phoenix on the Oscars
Sometimes, bro, you just gotta keep your mouth shut.
My Note: Despite it’s moral ambiguity and complexity, ‘The Master’ is nothing short of brilliant.
My Grade: A- (This grade will most likely change over time. I need a second viewing, and I feel as I grow in understanding, this movie will just get better to me. Putting a grade on this thing is like grading a Picasso painting; it wasn’t meant to be done.”