Five years after the release of his incredible 'There Will Be Blood', Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the most celebrated directors of our time, is back to the big screen. 'The Master' stars Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quells, a man with problems, to say the least. It is suggested that Freddie started his erratic, sex-obsessed behavior because of the trauma of serving in WWII; but the film gives us signs that it was already there on some level before his departure. After returning from the war, Freddie is unable to reintegrate to a civilian life. He is constantly thinking about having sex and getting drunk with alcoholic beverages fermented by himself. He is an outcast in the land he fought for.
Unable to keep a job, Freddie wanders into a ship set to sail to New York. On board is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a group called 'The Cause'. Freddie is initially hired by Dodd to make liquor for him, but soon enough the men are drawn to each by so-called master's promise of helping Freddie overcome his troubles. It is actually not entirely clear that this is why Freddie wants to stick with Dodd, but yet again, Anderson is anything but clear in what he wants to tell in this movie. Some will probably question whether Anderson is saying anything at all.
What will not be questioned, is the fact that 'The Master' is an incredibly well crafted film. Filmed in 70mm film, the cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. is not only beautiful, but also precise in informing out understanding of the film. Of as much importance is Jonny Greenwood's hypnotic and mysterious score. The performances are also impeccable. Joaquin Phoenix exaggerates his performance to a huge level, yet it doesn't feel artificial, but raw and uncomfortably realistic. Philip Seymour Hoffman, on the other hand, uses his usual strengths (of which I'm not always a fan) to create a version on the not-so-save charismatic cult leader that matches Phoenix's performance.
Amy Adams is also very good as Dodd's wife, a character that plays an important role in the way Lancaster Dodd behaves concerning his followers and his relationship with Freddie. She doesn't completely like what this bizarre wanderer is getting out of her husband and sees the insistance of the latter in helping him as a threat to 'the cause'. Such an erratic man is nothing but helpless and a liability for society's view of Dodd's beliefs.
Much has been said about how the film is a critique on scientology, and while 'the cause' might ressemble what Hubbard's following looked like back when it began, the film seems to be interested in other kinds of things. More than anything I feel the film presents a struggle between too much order and non at all. Freddie is confused, lonely, weird, uncomfortable, basically broken because he can't commit to order. He can't commit to a job, to love, to marriage, even to Dodd's cult because of what it demands of him. He can't stop reacting with his most natural impulses to whatever happens to him. Dodd, on the other hand, as the leader of a quasi religious following, is the creator of order. He claims to have the answers to life's biggest mysteries. Whether he truly believes in his writings or he makes it all up as he goes along isn't clear, but we know he wants to appear as if he did have the answers necessary for humanity's understanding of themselves.
Dodd sees his biggest task in helping Freddie. He insists in his teachings that men are not beasts, that they are superior. If a man so naturalistic and primitive in his behavior as Freddie could be saved, then what other proof of the grandeur of his teachings would the world need? What I take out of the movie is a question with a rather depressing answer, if it has an answer at all. This is a look at a tragic existence. One that lies between our most natural instincts and our desire for order, structure and what we call humanity. The answers we need to feel comfortable in beliefs aren't out there to be easily collected, but we can't live on our most primal impulses unless we turn into savages. These two men represent the fighting forces within us when we struggle to find a meaning to our own existence. But the struggle is an endless and empty one. There is no answer to be had. Those who believe are relying in an answer with a hollow center, those who don't are out to die alone and rejected.
Anyway, that's my reading of the film. I'm sure many people will have many different views and it is to Anderson's credit that there will be so many opinions. If I have a problem with the film is that his style might be a little too opaque for many people to form an opinion of what he might have to say with the film. They could dismiss it too quickly. I know I had to think about it long and hard to come to the conclusions I just wrote about. 'The Master' is certainly a big achievement, a surprisingly and tragically funny film as well as one that will start many fascinating conversations. And those are always great movies.