For anyone whose heard of this movie, its often referred to as the “Scientology” movie, or the “maybe-it-is-maybe-it-isn’t-about-Scientology” movie. It’s considered both controversial and enlightening, and though the production’s staff very adamant attempts to deny it, some view it almost like a pseudo-biography of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. But that’s not what we’re here to discuss today – we’re here to look at the film as a whole and see if and how it works. Or rather, if it works at all.
Let’s take a look at Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest big hit, The Master.
Our story begins with Freddie Quell, a hyper sexualized WWII vet who jumps from job to job before stowing away on the yacht of Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a movement called The Cause. During his stay, Freddie begins to be “processed” into the movement, becoming enamored with “The Master” as Dodd’s followers call him. However, Freddie is violent, often drunk, and causes issues with other members of the movement, even with Dodd protecting and sheltering him. The film is an in-depth look at the creation, development, and death of their complicated friendship, if you can even call it that. The plot itself is the film’s weakest aspect, being too conceptual and symbolic to allow for a strong, cohesive story, and also being too character driven to let events unfold without the aid of typical narrative structure.
Joaquin Phoenix proves that he hasn’t lost his touch as an actor through one of the greatest performances I have ever seen. I am serious, he steals the entire movie from Philip Seymour Hoffman by being both despicable and deranged, but also human and vulnerable in the most genuine way I have seen in a long time. It’s incredibly interesting to see Phoenix playing this role as he was born into a cult known as The Children of God. The character of Freddie is a genuinely disturbing one because there’s a lot about him that remains a mystery, and the little that we do know is shown through action, rarely ever spoken. He is an erratic ball of emotions, unstable to the letter, who really can put the audience off guard with how loyal and kind he is, until he explodes like a ball of rage and gets into a brutal fist fight. This movie doesn’t romanticize Freddie – he is a very sick, very disturbed man, but still a man nonetheless. It makes him the most haunting, creepy and realistic character of the film.
Philip Seymour Hoffman makes a great Master, aka Lancaster Dodd, the charming leader of The Cause. Dodd is equal parts enigma and emotion like Freddie, just in a different direction. He’s boisterous and typically kind, though occasionally prone to anger, who loves drinking and women, a genuinely a cheerful and creative man. His current wife Peggy is more so the antithesis to Freddie than Dodd is, a seemingly kind and docile woman who knows how to manipulate and use her influence on Dodd and the rest of the followers to stick to the narrow path she sees for The Cause, which does not including Freddie’s chaotic entity. Dodd himself seems more forced into his position in life, in part by Peggy, in part by his followers, and in part by his own personal demons and desires. In fact, sometimes it seems like The Master himself is really just a puppet, dancing around for the amusement of others around him, despite clinging to notion that he is the one in control.
Simultaneously, the relationship between Freddie and Dodd is a contentious subject. While Freddie may view Dodd as a friend, a brother, or maybe even a father figure, Dodd may or may not reciprocate those feelings, i.e. viewing Freddie as part of his family. Dodd treats Freddie like a dog at times, even calling him so, but also manipulates him as a regular member of the cult. However, Dodd also greatly admires Freddie, even says as much, treating him like a friend at times, greatly admiring him and his tenacity, and even treating him with love and respect. again, Anderson never spells it out, and if he had, it would have ruined it. The great thing about the relationship is that we will never actually know how the dynamics really worked, and most human relationships are in constant shift anyways so one label would never do. This is one of the big things the film does right. It really helped to keep the film interesting but also true to life.
It’s up to the audience to decide if The Cause and its teaching are real or fake. When I first watched it, I believed Anderson was making the case that the whole ideology was made up and thus proving that the Master himself was little more than a charismatic con-man out to make money by preaching his pseudo-psychological bullshit. But after doing some research about the ending (and I will talk about that, no worries), some people see the film as arguing that only Freddie perceives it as being false, but that The Cause is in fact genuine, a closer comparison to organized religion than a cult. This film works not only as a character piece but a way to work through these complicated questions for the audience, making Freddie or Dodd almost like theological viewpoints represented in the flesh.
The direction and cinematography of this film is stunning. As a period piece, it works exceptionally well with bright and alternatively subdued colors, accurate period costuming, and an incredibly subtle use of lighting. The direction itself is flawless, making great use of the camera angles and cuts to blur reality and perception. The actors are not all crisp, clean cutouts, but look always in a natural state of wear-and-tear, just a little bit disheveled, more human than Hollywood. Hell, sometimes it seems like if you try hard enough, you can actually smell the 1950s, that’s how good this movie looks.
The ending is another subject of debate among people who saw the film. While it is clear that Freddie will not be returning to The Cause, whether or not his ending is a happy one is unknown. He is seen laying with both a real woman, and one made of sand, respectively, before the film cuts out. Some people take it to mean that Freddie can interact better with the world around him and that he has finally found peace and some form of happiness. Others say that even though Freddie tries to find his place in the world, he is stuck with the trauma and loneliness he felt in the war. Some people even believe that Freddie will never find true love amongst real people and that his ideal woman will always just be a woman made of sand. My own personal take is that Freddie realizes that he can never escape his past, has used The Cause’s techniques in so far as they have been able to help him, but has decided to become his own master, rather than suffering under Dodd or his own complex and violent emotions. But again, this film isn’t made to fit one specific definition or meaning – take it how you want, there is no wrong answer.
In the end, The Master is just a few hairs short of being a full fledged masterpiece, but as it stands, it is one of the most fascinating, saddening character studies ever put to film. Its views on religion, interpersonal dynamics, and the power of belief and domination are subtle and incredibly nuanced for a film of only 2 hours. If there’s one word I could use to describe it, it would be human – this film feels more true to life than a majority of the schlock I see the rest of the year. It is a near perfect movie, and I highly recommend watching it if only because of how strong a character piece it is.
– Phenomenal acting.
– Great direction.
– Complicated and interesting issues.
– Not much to the plot.
– The lack of definite ending or meaning can be confusing.