Everyone Has One
Ever since his breakthrough with 1997’s Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson has been a fascinating director to follow. Whether it be a sprawling, multi-character drama, or the story of how wealth and power can corrupt an individual, or even an experiment with Adam Sandler, his movies are always worth watching, whether you ultimately enjoy them or not. The same can be said for The Master, the director’s examination of the powers behind belief systems akin to Scientology. It’s a fascinating examination, but whether or not it truly says anything is still up for debate.
The movie focuses on a sailor named Freddie Quell. Psychologically scarred by the events he witnessed during World War II, Freddie is having trouble adjusting back to life as a civilian. After consuming too much of a dangerous alcoholic beverage he concocted himself, he stumbles onto a boat being used by one Lancaster Dodd to celebrate his daughter’s wedding. Freddie soon learns that Mr. Dodd is the figurehead of something called “The Cause”, which has developed quite a following. He asks Mr. Dodd for a job and is given one, although it is never really clear what responsibilities he has been given.
In truth, Dodd keeps Freddie around because he is fascinated by him. He takes him under his wing and turns him into something of a project. Dodd puts Freddie through a series of intense therapy drills, which seem only to increase the young man’s violent nature. Freddie is loyal to Dodd, almost to a fault, physically assaulting anyone who might speak out against him and his teachings. Freddie’s violent nature and never-ending drunkenness lead those closest to Dodd, including his dedicated-to-the-cause wife, to question the continued presence of this man who only seems to be getting in the way of Dodd’s ultimate calling.
It is the character of Dodd’s wife that is really the most interesting personality in The Master. Like Lady MacBeth, Peggy Dodd has an agenda for her husband and will do whatever it takes to make him realize the goals of their cause. Played by Amy Adams in what is certainly the darkest role of her career to date, Peggy Dodd is ruthless and a couple of scenes really show her true power. Her character actually makes you have second thoughts as to whom the title of the movie is referring.
On the surface, the title is definitely referring to Lancaster Dodd, whom Freddie often refers to as his master. But even Dodd asks at one point if anyone could truly ever be master-less. Played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Dodd is a charismatic, vibrant personality and it is easy to see why legions of people would follow this man to the ends of the Earth and beyond.
Rounding out the lead cast is Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie. In his first movie role since his retirement from acting to pursue a rap career—a move that now seems to have been one faulty acting stunt—the actor is back with a vengeance in The Master. Phoenix lets it all go when showing off Freddie’s destructive side and it is these scenes that are going to get the most attention, but his real performances is in the subtleties of his character: his posture, his walk, etc. If only his character would have gone somewhere.
Perhaps the character of Freddie Quell could be better understood after another viewing or two, but upon an initial viewing there does not appear to be any progression within the character. To put it in the proper terms, there is no character arc. At the beginning of the movie, Freddie is a disturbed, violent young man with no direction. After all of Dodd’s instruction and therapy, Freddie still comes off as a disturbed, violent young man with no direction.
The whole movie suffers from the same problem. From the powerful opening chords of the movie’s score, the audience gets the sense that they are in for something big. The characters are larger than life, the cinematography stunning. Throughout the entire movie, there is a sense that the film is going to go to a place we would never have expected, but instead, it doesn’t really go anywhere. There are a couple of truly standout scenes along the journey, but the journey just seems to continue without ever reaching an actual destination. Like Lancaster Dodd’s game of “Pick a Point”, the movie seems to have selected a destination that it just can’t get to.
The Master is rated R for “sexual content, graphic nudity, and language.” Anderson doesn’t do anything halfway, so expect The Master to have its fair share of graphic content and language.
Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of The Master.e39