Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012
World War II veteran Freddie Quell is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and consequently, falls into a self-destructive pattern of alcoholism and sex addiction. Stumbling across a religious cult led by the enigmatic Lancaster Dodd, Freddie joins the group in hopes of being cured of his demons.
Most will know of The Master’s unofficial associations with L. Ron Hubbard and his dubious creation of Scientology. But any looking for a satire or any sort of comment on the above will be disappointed for if Paul Thomas Anderson did indeed draw from Hubbard, it was no more than he drew from Oil! when writing There Will Be Blood. Of course, the aforementioned touched on the topic of faith but remained by and large a character study. Five years later, Anderson has gone bigger and possibly better in his exploration of not a single character but humanity itself, simply told through the eyes of damaged, haunted characters who are portrayed emphatically by an excellent cast.
Joaquin Phoenix tweaks and expands on his depiction of Johnny Cash by playing Freddie Quell. Freddie is a man who has endured war, the most horrendously primitive of human actions, and must now find salvation from a lifestyle plagued with self-annihilation. Freddie sees the opportunity to salvage his life by following a man who appears to be the refined antithesis of what Freddie has become. Enter Philip Seymour Hoffman as the seemingly tranquil but very abrupt Lancaster Dodd. Yet despite Lancaster’s scholarly ways, he sees in Freddie a feral passion that cannot be saved by indoctrination, one that exists in himself and which at rare intervals emerges whenever Lancaster feels threatened, much like the habits of a wild animal. If there is any fault in The Master, it’s that we only get momentary influxes of Amy Adams as Lancaster’s wife Peggy – the woman behind the curtain who is clearly pulling the strings (in some cases almost literally). However this may be properly attuned to the balance of the characters and perhaps Peggy, as spectacular as she is played by Adams, would have been more ineffective in a larger role.
Anderson’s message is clear. There exists, in all of us, an animosity which we cannot escape but merely deter and theology is an important part of that deterrence. Though while Anderson chiefly discusses religion’s functionality in society he does not refute the existence of higher power, thusly infusing the film with more integrity than an overly-opinionated filmmaker would achieve.
The Master is a crucial study of religion and the ways it, in no matter how absurd a form, can tame us and separate us from beast. Whereas it may not satisfy everyone and includes neither milkshake metaphors nor a good bludgeoning, The Master is engaging, stimulating and provokes that all-important philosophical question, “If you figure a way to live without serving a master then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.”
★ ★ ★ ★ ★