Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
We’re introduced to Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell, a Navy man hanging out with other soldiers on some Pacific Islands beach just as WWII is about to end. We immediately realize there’s not something quite right about Freddie, something that’s confirmed as he enters civilian life and his violently erratic behavior and obsession with sex makes it difficult to hold down a job taking photo portraits at a department store. His spare time is spent making chemical-based moonshine which gets him into trouble at his second job when someone falls ill after drinking it. He first meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as he stows away on his riverboat trying to escape for that situation. Lancaster sees a kindred soul in Freddie and is intrigued by the potency of Freddie’s chemical concoctions and immediately indoctrinates him as an enforcer for The Cause, a new religion he’s creating that uses “processing” to allow its members/patients to experience past lives. He determines Freddie’s problems derive from the break-up with his sweetheart Doris, but his wife Peggy (Adams) and others around them disapprove of Freddie and Lancaster’s relationship with him.
Early on in the film, Freddie is given a Rorschach test by a military doctor and every image reminds him of either male or female genitals. It’s a fairly significant scene since “The Master” may as well be PT Anderson’s Rorschach test for viewers, because it’s a film that allows everyone to walk away from it with a different experience and impression of what Anderson was trying to say. That alone is fairly genius since it’s so rare in an artform where clear and concise storytelling is often preferable. It may not be clear from a basic synopsis how much goes on in “The Master,” but Anderson’s tight script and his relatively small cast allows him to explore what he wanted to say in a way that leaves quite a bit open for interpretation.
“The Master” marks a welcome return for Phoenix, playing a role just as complex as portraying Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line,” but also one that’s far more eclectic, which fits well into his wheelhouse. When we see Freddie in flashbacks with his long-lost sweetheart Doris, that’s the time where he’s able to gain some sympathy and we do see that this isn’t just a deranged individual looking to cause trouble, but someone who was damaged by his decision to fight for his country.
Even more significant is the reunion after some years of Anderson with Philip Seymour Hoffman, showing how much they’ve both grown in their respective crafts, Hoffman’s Dodd being another unforgettable character in a long line of roles that one could never imagine anyone else pulling off. The relationship between Freddie and Lancaster is an interesting contrast to that of Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday in “Blood,” making it hard not to think that Anderson still had more to say about religion’s place in the world.
There’s no avoiding the Scientology connections because even if it’s not based on any concrete facts from Hubbard’s history, there are enough similarities between the way they work and how the skeptics on the veracity of Dodd’s religion constantly puts him on the defensive.
Amy Adams takes more of a backseat role as Lancaster Dodd’s wife, but it’s clear she’s just as dedicated to the Cause (if not moreso) and she has a number of memorable monologues and moments opposite both the leads. We wouldn’t even be remotely surprised if all three of them receive accolades and awards attention for bringing so much to the movie.
Anderson uses some of the same storytelling techniques as “Blood,” opening the film with minimal dialogue and allowing Johnny Greenwood’s dissonant orchestrations to dominate. While “Blood” took full advantage of the widescreen format for its setting, “The Master” is quickly pulled back to take place in more confined spaces that makes the story feel more enclosed and allows one’s focus to remain fully on the performances and what they’re saying.
Greenwood’s score is once again something not to be trifled with, another masterpiece of atonal instrumentations that gives the film a unique and distinctive feel, but Anderson’s use of pop tunes from the era along with that score (some of them sung and performed by Hoffman) adds to the film in even more interesting ways.
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