As I watched The Master, I found myself completely engrossed into the film. Some may not find it as great as I do, after the movie finished I heard mixed thoughts from my fellow audience members, but it is completely absorbing and is a fascinating piece of cinema. This is Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film since 2007’s There Will Be Blood, which many critics named as the best film of the decade, and it’s clear he hasn’t lost his touch. Very few films are as deep as The Master and very few are as cleverly made.
One notable thing about The Master is the enormous amount of controversy it has gotten over the cult in the film known as “the Cause,” which bares many similarities to Scientology. Indeed, the movie takes place in the 1950s (around the same time Scientology was founded) and director Paul Thomas Anderson stated that the character Lancaster Dodd is based after L. Ron Hubbard. In fact, the first person who saw The Master was the world’s most famous Scientologist Tom Cruise, who is a close friend of Anderson and starred in the director’s Magnolia. When asked what Cruise’s reaction to the film was, Anderson responded, “We’re still friends.”
But The Master isn’t focused on “the Cause” but on Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). The film starts at the end of World War II, where Freddy has served in the Navy fighting against the Japanese. Once the announcement of peace is made, Freddy plans to move on. He works as a photographer and later becomes a migrant farmer in California.
Freddy is a seriously damaged and deranged. We can see his sexual urges as he lusts for women (in one scene he hops onto a sand sculpture of a naked lady, in another he seduces a modeler). Freddy’s also an alcoholic. He grabs fuel from one of the torpedoes and makes drinks using that gasoline, paint thinner, cocoanut water, and whatever else he can find.
After serving one of his drinks to a fellow migrant worker, who becomes seriously ill, Freddy runs away and hitches a ride aboard a boat headed by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who describes himself as a scientist, a writer, and a philosopher. Dodd is currently starting with his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) a cult known as “the Cause,” which states that people have had lives before theirs.
Dodd is on the boat to celebrate the wedding of his daughter. He is taking the ship past the Panama Canal to New York to spread his ideas. When he discovers Freddy on the ship, he does not throw him off but brings him in. He believes he can help him, redeem him. “You’ll be both my guinea pig and protegee,” Dodd tells Freddy.
From there, the film is about the relation between Freddy and Dodd. Dodd views Freddy as an animal who can be tamed, while Freddy feels freed emotionally by Dodd’s speeches. There’s many powerful scenes between the two, one of which is a montage of Dodd’s attempts to cure Freddy.
This relationship is what the film is about. The cult serves more as a background between the two. Freddy is loyal to Dodd and constantly tries to prove himself. When a man questions Dodd’s beliefs, Freddy violently attacks him to defend Dodd. Freddy refuses to disbelieve Dodd, even when his son tells him, “he’s making this up as he goes on.”
Much credit has to be given to the performances. Philip Seymour Hoffman is magnificent as Lancaster Dodd, and seems completely believable. I actually can’t imagine any other actor playing that role, the way how he speaks just mesmerizes you and draws you in. Amy Adams is fantastic as Peggy and is more powerful than I was expecting.
But it is Joaquin Phoenix who really steals the show. Phoenix is one of the most talented actors working right now (if you don’t believe me watch Gladiator or Walk the Line) and after that mockumentary I’m Still Here, which nearly destroyed his career (if that was supposed to be the intention of the film), he has made a great comeback with The Master. I felt what was going on in Freddy’s life, his anger, his jealously, his fears. Joaquin Phoenix is haunting in his role and just grabs you in. The way he expresses his emotions on his face, the way he laughs, the way how he has sudden outbursts of violence. This is his best performance and very few actors have been able to draw such skill into films.
The soundtrack, written by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead fame, is fantastic. It conveys the mood of the film and helps the pace. It’s just as haunting as Phoenix in his role.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction is superb. He always seems to film one shot for quite a while so we can get an understanding of the action. He gives us close ups so we can see the emotions in the characters. Some may be thrown off by this, but Anderson completely got me into the film. His story is powerful and deep. I’d describe The Master as a character analysis with Freddy as his subject instead of being about a cult.
Another quick note is that the film was shot in 65 mmand screened in 70 mm, the first movie to do this since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet came out in 1996. I happened to see it on film and highly recommend it. If you’re able to, try to find a film screening of this.
Overall, The Master is a masterpiece. In years to come, film scholars will be looking over The Master and examining it. It is a triumph in filmmaking and one of the best films you may ever see.