By Afra Nariman
The Master (2012)
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
An alcoholic, loner and troubled World War II veteran with a dark and unknown past, named Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix), drifts around and eventually meets Lancaster Dodd (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who is an intellectual by name and the leader of a new religion that he calls “The Cause.” The two bond through a mentor-student relationship, as Freddie becomes attached to “The Master” and his teachings that are meant to free a person’s mind from their ailments.
Loosely based on the origins of scientology, this film is, in one word, interesting. As far as production, it doesn’t get much better than The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson wrote and directed one of his most ambitious films, where he tells the story of a lost, alcoholic loner who returns from WWII with PTSD, and meets the leader of a new religious movement called “The Cause.” The film’s cool, fluid and dragged out style of cinematography was brilliant. The way the camera would follow characters and their movement, rather than constantly cut from one angle to another, was a game-changer. Additionally, the enchanting background music and sound added to the mysterious aura surrounding the “Cause” and it’s leader, Lancaster Dodd. The film’s set up was perfectly paced and did an excellent job of allowing us to understand Freddie Quell; who he was, what kind of person he was, and why he would be drawn to the Cause later in the film. It’s worth mentioning right now, although I will get more into it later, the acting performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman were unbelievably spectacular as well, and may in fact be the highlight of the film.
The Master manages to tell a deeply unique story from a few different angles. It tells the story of a World War II veteran, burdened by PTSD who returns to the States and has nothing waiting for him. Additionally, another angle of the story is about the fact that he has nothing waiting for him when he returns. It tells the story of a broken man, with no family, who is desperately searching for one, and thinks that he finds it in The Master, his family and the followers of The Cause, even though, as the Master put it, ‘Only I like you!” The other members of his family and the followers of the Cause were wary of Freddie and his unpredictably erratic personality.
The fact that we get descriptions and hear the teachings of the Cause throughout the film add to an understanding of why things happen the way they do. We could have been left more in the dark than we were about what the Cause is, and the movie still would have worked. Luckily though, we did get some descriptive background on the Cause’s teachings through extremely interesting scenes where the Master preaches and teaches his new religion. The goal of the Cause seems to be to free one’s mind from any and all ailments that may be holding the person back (present and past), which would ideally lead to a better world. It’s understandable why Freddie, an alcoholic loner with a deeply feeble mind, suffering from PTSD, and its suggested more that just that, would be attracted to the words of the Master and the teachings of the Cause. Without a family or a purpose, Freddie is searching for something, or someone, to hold on to. As his friendship and mentorship with Dodd grows, Freddie becomes attached to him, and at times even violently protective towards anybody attempting to discredit his mentor. Freddie’s journey in the film could be described as a story about recovery and overcoming the past. In Dodd, he finds someone who is committed to helping him do just that.
The film is highlighted by the evolving relationship between Phoenix’s Freddie Quell and Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd. The most detailed and significant scenes of the movie are the ones that feature the compelling exchanges between the two stars. Most iconic, are the teaching scenes where we see Phoenix’s character at his most vulnerable and unstable, being questioned and tested by Hoffman’s character, who is exhibiting extreme confidence and stability in his actions and words. The antithetical chemistry between the two lead to some of the most fascinating parts of the film. The acting performances put on by both Phoenix and Hoffman are among the best examples of great acting that you could watch. Their scenes are full of unique, detailed and dragged out dialogue that keeps you engaged. The personalities of their characters are in such opposition with one another, and each actor masterfully captures the essence of their respective roles as Freddie Quell and his mentor, Lancaster Dodd.
Not quite a narrative in the traditional sense, The Master is one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s most patient and mysteriously interesting films. At times, it doesn’t seem clear where the film is heading next, which leaves you feeling a bit lost; but in a way, that I believe serves a purpose. Freddie is lost throughout the film, and is learning about the Cause, a mysterious new religious movement. Understandably, he goes through moments of clarity, before feeling lost yet again. The film follows the same path as Freddie, and for the viewer, it results in a relatively engaging experience. Filled with outrageously weird and random scenes, mixed with strange and outlandish conversations, The Master is one of a kind… weird at times, but uniquely interesting; though it doesn’t grab a hold of you in the way that Anderson’s There Will Be Blood does. The production of the film is the best thing about it, highlighted by the incredible acting of Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams.