The Master tells the story of Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran struggling to adjust to a post-war society who meets Lancaster Dodd (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a leader of a religious movement known as “The Cause,” who sees something in Quell and accepts him into the movement. Freddie takes a liking to “The Cause” and begins traveling with Dodd along the East Coast to spread the teachings.
The fact that the film is a fictitious revision of the life stories of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (here they call it “The Cause” to avoid a lawsuit) and John Steinbeck, and the lack of a strong plot makes The Master an odd dodgy animal of a film. I cannot quite grasp what the film’s themes were or its central message – this was probably Paul Thomas Anderson’s intention. Why PTA intended such a cinematic experience is not entirely clear within the film. It’s surprisingly not interested in the inner workings of Scientology or cult organization. It’s about men wanting to find and heal their souls after a post-war period. One man has no idea how to do it and the other claims to have all the answers. Psychology has not yet established itself with people as recognized science yet and therein arises the cult of The Cause. And somewhere in there is a rite of passage, coming-of-age story. It is fleeting; I cannot exactly pinpoint it.
Having said all that, Paul Thomas Anderson does capture something very engaging- the central relationship between Freddy Quell and Lancaster Dodd is fascinating. Joaquin Phoenix convincingly embodies pain of a man who’s been through war. He contorts his body as if he were literally “beaten out of shape”. I read that after a few drafts of the screenplay, PTA decided that it should be Freddy’s story and I do think this is probably the better decision. He is the more sympathetic character simply because he’s trying to work through his past pain and fit in society. That alone almost justifies his frequent bursts of violence.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman is great and the director presents the character Lancaster Dodd as if he were a salesman. The character would have lost its charm if the film shown him behind the scenes coming up with his questionable methods of healing. I’m glad they didn’t. There’s a interrogation-like healing session between Dodd and Quell where we see his ideas being physicalized that I really enjoyed. Also, I particularly liked scenes where Lancaster Dodd’s theories are questioned and he is forced to justify his theories publicly. It is very truthful how Hoffman presented how people like this never argue properly when their ideas are challenged. They tend to shrimp out of the argument or snap into an aggressive state. And yes, on that note…
There is a violence lurking beneath both men that makes them volatile characters. It becomes the key thing that connects their souls together and in a way you can call this a hetero-love story between two men. It also becomes the key thing that makes them engaging to the audience. I was unnerved about where they were going to end up. If it were not for this strong central relationship, I probably would have tuned out of the film. Both Hoffman and Phoenix’s performances were deservedly Oscar-nominated.
Jonny Greenwood’s unsettling musical score is noteworthy. It is never directly punctuates what is happening in the moment and it does not musically sync to specific cuts or montage. I started asking myself, why was the music unsettling me? How was it serving the film? For me (and I don’t mean this in a reductive way), the music was implying something outside what was happening onscreen and it suggested the idea of “What if Lancaster Dodd’s methods are effective?” “What if he is indeed helping people?” “What are the consequences if Dodd is just making it all up?” It had me thinking about the growing amount of people that were joining The Cause and how joining a cult may have seemed like an intelligent solution to post-traumatic stress at that time. Someone should give Greenwood an award for this.
The Master may frustrate some audiences because it leaves empty space where one would expect something concrete. It’s all very well done and even with empty space, I think most people will get something out of it. It’s masterful how PTA still managed to make it an engaging experience relying on so little. Exiting a film puzzling over it’s themes can be mentally fun, but that experience does not measure up to going through a fully satisfying catharsis. And that’s why, for my money, There Will Be Blood remains the superior Paul Thomas Anderson film.