*Warning- SPOILERS ahead!*
Perhaps just like the instability of a wounded soul sifting for meaning and purpose, Paul Thomas Anderson's newly acclaimed film, The Master does not follow a specific format. It's as organic as it is beautiful to look at. Just like an exposed individual, the truth can be unnerving to perceive. The particular perception of Anderson's Oscar caliber film is extreme. Extreme but maybe an extremely necessary voice that is timeless.
Some would call this film meandering or self-indulgent. The short-sighted nature of that assessment is that this is not a film to ENTERTAIN. Don't get me wrong, I was extremely entertained but the character studies were meant to envelope fragments of the human experience through a very specific set of eyes. Joaquin Phoenix is unrecognizable as Navy seaman Freddie Quell, a demented and disturbed war veteran now stagnant in his life. Quall has little to turn to as America is captivated by General Douglas MacArthur's rally speech at the conclusion of World War II. He is a sexually obsessed and borderline deviant nymphomaniac. The crudeness in which he speaks reveals a fragmented and weary soul. While the whimsical score evokes a certain misguided calmless, there is fright and a fragile, frazzled emotional frustration buried in Freddie Quell's eyes. This is evident in the odd exchanges he communicates with his clients after the war, taking a portrait photography gig at a department store. Expanding the notion of captured visuals, director of photography Mihai Malaimare Jr. frames the screen beautifully with sharp vivid imagery, bucking the notion that modern cinema must be shot digitally; instead utilizing 70 mm stock. Many frames exhibited an extended depth of field giving great atmosphere and tone. The lighting was dramatic where it needed to be: in the company of puzzling communication, rooms of ambiguous intentions, yet open and transcendental in the midst of open plains and captivating the vast motion of the sea. I found it interesting how the movie began on an island, representing the alienation present in Quell's head and the spontaneous nature in which both he and the foamy seas choose to present themselves.
After jumping job to job and souring his cabbage farming duties, Freddie flees Salinas and takes his specially distilled liquor with him where stumbles upon a departing yacht. This is where he meets Lancaster Dodd (who is rarely ever mentioned by legal name) also known as "Master" played assuredly by Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman. Right away, Freddie is drawn to the charismatic, engaging, witty, bright and multi-faceted nature of Dodd's being. Hoffman and Phoenix are both going to be strong favorites for Best Actor and Supporting Actor and while it's hard who discern just who is the leading man, that's yet another mark of PT Anderson's amazing work. The story follows the growth and development of Freddie Quells yet the film centers around the teachings and philosophies of Hoffman's character.
The intrusive, murky shots with muddled objects in the forefront during their initial conversations suggest a 'feeling-out' process in which neither individual's motives are quite clear. Once again, the shadows are dialed up and reminiscent of the important moods in The Godfather. Similar objectives are achieved here. While isolated on the boat with Dodd and his 'family', Master preaches about psychological healing, using the restraints of time against the embedded trauma of the past trillions of years: since the very beginning of existence. His faux teachings of spiritual training and his audio tutorials of ridding negative emotions are eerily comparable to L. Ron Hubbard's initial groundwork for the Scientology cult. He preaches the ancient nature of one's true spirit but warns his clients, "Your memory's uninvited." Dodd seemingly has a patchwork quilt of methods to soothe and solve one's own self-enigma having a hand in everything around him, including acting as ordained minister to marry his own daughter.
A particularly nuanced and intense scene between Master and Freddie occurs when the latter is being 'processed' by Dodd. We learn more of Quell's troubled past serving our nation, his severed love life, the incestuous drunken sexual actions with his aunt, his psychotic mother and the murders he carried out for our government overseas. This scene builds in tension and raw emotion and Lancaster Dodd refers not only Freddie but the human race as animals. He is very skilled and layered at chipping at the psyche of the troubled while he feasts on the traumatized. We meet Master's family, including his wife Peggy, who is played BRILLIANTLY by Amy Adams. This role might be the most accomplished I've seen her as an actress thus far. Peggy supports and endorses strongly everything her husband preaches, including their joint ambitions of curing leukemia and psychological disorders and returning our minds back to the "inherent state of perfect" they were trillions of years ago through time travel hypnosis therapy. They see each mortal life as yet a vessel to pass along a state of consciousness that never has died. 'The Cause' aka The Cult aims to remedy the soul and spirit through "memory fillers" but essentially it sounds like nonsense and moreso cognitive delusion. As with most cults, there's some singing, some dancing, the standard seductions of the damaged and wounded. Perhaps even Peggy aims at a more pure goal, evidenced by her displeasure of Lancaster getting drunk with the distilled liquor Freddie makes, erhm persuading him not to get inebriated anymore.
The water journey endured by The Cause lands them initially in New York City to attract other clients but after some resistance, their travels take them to Philadelphia where they run a brainwashing clinic in the home of Helen Sullivan, played by Laura Dern. Soon after arriving however, Lancaster is arrested for a wrongful withdraw of funds from the group back in NYC and an angry, 'animalistic' Freddie Quells gets locked up too for violent resistance of the police. It is then that Freddie reaches a crossroads of realizing the absurdity of his new friends or submitting to The Cause completely. Dodd explains that nobody likes Freddie except him and it is obvious that he yearns for Quell's attention and possibly aims to craft Freddie's disillusion into a protege of sorts. Phoenix's character endures an aggressive application of re-conditioning the perception of all three of his eyes in an eerie scene that alters the very nature of texture and color frequency. As Peggy and Lancaster maintain to those in need of their administration, "You're asleep and have been for trillions of years." The basis of their cult is expanded and Lancaster publishes his second book of ideologies entitled, 'The Split Sabre.' A woman points out the error in foundation that Dodd has written in his new novel, noting that his vital question of, 'Can You Recall?' has now been written as 'Can you Imagine?' Despite Freddie's newfound docile nature and submission to The Cause, he still retains the impulsive anger that has plagued his previous self. He assaults a naysayer of Dodd's new book, proving that the methods are not what they were explained.
Freddie Quells abandons The Cause, riding away on Master's motorcycle in the Nevada desert, returning home to his former lover, Doris, who has since moved on and married with children. No doubt this is another instance of trauma for Freddie. He stays away from Lancaster until Dodd contacts him to come to London, where he has setup a new expansive office in the heart of England. Peggy never trusted Freddie and it seems fitting that the big, empty office ridden with shadows still mirrors the ambiguous motives of The Cause yet with much more room to operate, given their past history with Freddie. Master explains that if Quells isn't all in to support them that he never wants to see him again, although it is evident that he cares very much for Freddie, serenading him with a song heard earlier regarding Doris. It is at this piint that I'm calling Lancaster 'Master' Dodd's sexuality into question. It would explain his commitment to Freddie ddespite the distrust his wife and family had all along. Was he in love with Freddie Quells or did he just fervently believe in the cause? I tend to lean more towards the former, Anderson showing us the corrupt nature of the human condition and those with a major platform. Just like Freddie Quells, I believe Lancaster Dodd to be a sexual deviant, at least bi-sexual at that.
The film concludes with a solitary Freddie Quells, bar-hopping, chasing women, etc. However, the main difference is that know he has a new convulted foundation to seduce and prey on vulnerable women, as learned by Master Dodd. He still is a lost soul, exposing himself to numerous pitfalls. It's fitting that the final shot maintains a cyclical return to the opening shot, Anderson telling us how fragile the human soul is, naively never progressing and evolving despite radical developments. Quell is yet again on an island; physically as well as emotionally, the man is still in search of his own current in the midst of the organic, fluid, and ever-spontaneous nature of life.
True to form, Paul Thomas Anderson completes a cornucopia of cerebral morality questions and exploration of the conditions we live in. As in any effective period piece (this time 1950), the actions and dynamic situations our characters find themselves in still portray the struggles that we endure, trillions of year in the making or not. This film will be a powerhouse at Oscars season and I fully expect Anderson, Phoenix, Hoffman and Adams to be in consideration of the Academy. I wouldn't be surprised if the film's components took home multiple awards. It was staggering and like There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, and Punch Drunk Love, evoked an artistic and subtly indifferent view of the lives we lead.
ROC Rating: 9.3/10