After returning from the Second World War, having witnessed many horrors, a charismatic intellectual (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) creates a faith-based organisation in an attempt to provide meaning to his life. He becomes known as 'The Master'. His right-hand man (Joaquin Phoenix), a former drifter, begins to question both the belief system and The Master as the organisation grows and gains a fervent following.
TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: In my dad’s favourite scene of his favourite movie, Fellini’s Amarcord, an Italian family visits with their crazy Uncle Teo, who is granted a day leave from the mental facility where he lives. As a family picnic rambles on, Uncle Teo wanders away, and is soon found shouting from the top of the tree he has climbed: Voglio una donna! Voglio una donnnnaaaaaaaa!
Dodd is based on L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Scientology movement, but The Master is not the takedown some have hoped or worried it might be.
I want a woman. For my dad the scene is perfect because it takes something that looks complicated and makes it very simple: the basic lack at the heart of so much unhappiness. Crazy Uncle Teo isn’t really crazy; his howling loneliness is essential, universal. Watching The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnificent, seething dispatch from mid-twentieth century America, I was reminded of that scene again and again, beginning with the opening images of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, starved down to bile and bone) and his fellow navy cadets idling on a beach and waiting out World War II.
In a sequence set to the rippling, knocking tones that recur throughout the film (Jonny Greenwood did the score), the men laze, then build a naked woman from the sand, then defile that woman. Freddie in particular makes a show of it, an image followed by a long shot of Phoenix from behind, hunched and grotesquely simian as he masturbates frantically into the horizon.
Is Freddie crazy? A sequence Anderson has said he lifted directly from John Huston’s Let There Be Light (a heartbreaking documentary filmed in a Long Island halfway house, where traumatised WWII veterans were sent for reintegration treatment; the American military was so upset by its contents that the film was banned from released for 40 years) shows Freddie as practically incoherent. Every Rorschach image he sees is female genitalia. He can’t stop drinking and, as his bosses at department store photographer job he lands upon his release soon learn, he has a vicious streak. If this is madness it has many colours.
With long takes and a square focus on its subject, Anderson uses pure cinema techniques—the camera follows but also sometimes reveals the action—to enhance a dynamic of steadfast observation. Freddie is unpredictable, unstable; we don’t know what happened to him during the war, but we share the camera’s keen wariness in observing its effects. Very shortly Freddie has wandered onto an opulent yacht at night as a party rages on its front deck; the next morning he is observed first by the young woman who finds the stowaway passed out below decks, then by the ship’s guest of honour, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, burnished to a high masculine gloss). By his own account Dodd is a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, and a philosopher. 'But above all," he tells Freddie with a practiced, ready for prime time simper, 'a man."
Dodd is based on L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Scientology movement, but The Master is not the takedown some have hoped or worried it might be. At least not in any overt or gratuitous way. Instead it is focused on the paternal, fraternal, and romantic bond struck between two men set up as avatars of pure id and pure ego. The empire Dodd is building is based on a book that seems to combine the philosophies of Sigmund Freud and Ayn Rand. 'Processing sessions’ pry into a subject’s most painful memories, with the hope that they can be shed and a fully reconciled self might emerge. Dodd sees man as a super-animal, and discourages the animal in Freddie even as he savours the hooch Freddie cooks up in makeshift labs. Freddie is sex and spirits; Dodd is sensual appetite and pseudo-spirituality.
The wonderful twist in Anderson’s script (and of course the casting of the naturally garrulous Hoffman) is that Dodd may be a megalomaniac and a fraud, but he’s also (and often) not wrong. At least not in his assessment of Freddie; it’s also easy to accept his impulse to help the damaged veteran, to draw him out and over to his side. If Dodd is ultimately just the opposite extreme, for a minute—especially during a riveting private interview between the two men—it seems like his influence might at least offer Freddie a chance at the middle ground between them.
Dodd and his coterie tour old money salons filled with swells titillated by the newest trend in self-discovery during the decade when America couldn’t stop discovering itself. Eventually his much-anticipated second book reveals cracks in the pop-philosophy he has leveraged into a cult following. Anderson tells this story in fragments, and though Freddie is the center of the film, a cool, Kubrickian narrative cast allows for easy switches of allegiance. Many scenes end on the downbeat, unexpectedly; little is depicted or described directly. Small moments—like that, ahem, shared between Dodd and his Lady Macbeth-ish wife (played by Amy Adams)—swerve the story in a subtle but radically new direction.
At a hypnotic 2 hours and 20 minutes, The Master bears a second and third and fourth viewing. Slow moving and astonishingly well-designed (though I’m still torn about a false ending I might prefer to the actual one), like its central character it contains multitudes. Or does it? In their final, climactic meeting, Dodd expresses caustic disappointment in his young project, and in having worked so hard to gain access to a void. Phoenix is hard to look at he burns so furiously; that Anderson keeps his eyes, his best feature, in recessive shadow for much of the film has the double, merciful effect of shielding us from their full intensity.
That shadow—the gap in between Freddie and the world, man and animal, well and not, truth and fiction, self and persona—is what lingers beyond the final images of Freddie’s base but tentative connection with a woomaaaaaan, along with the question The Master answers by not answering: But is he crazy?