When Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master premiered at the 2012 Venice Film Festival the immediate reaction from critics in attendance was that of high praise. The festival jury agreed, bestowing best actor awards to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix and best director to Paul Thomas Anderson; and, as is expected at the Venice Film Festival, a scandal erupted over whether the best picture Golden Lion went to The Master or Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta [NY Times Artsbeat]. The admiration for filming on 65mm (to be seen on 70mm in theatres) also gave The Master an immediate boost is likability because in a dying world of film usage in lieu of the cheaper digital format a movie made on 65mm is rare beyond measure. The usage pays off as The Master is breathtakingly beautiful with its expansive extreme wide shots and uncomfortable close-ups that last far too long and cause one to stir in his seat from the intrusive nature of the shot. The trance inducing score with its methodical rhythm only further creates an almost ominous feeling surrounding the entire film, creating a place in time that is haunted by the ghosts of the characters. The technical aspects of The Master are not what will have people talking after seeing it, and the scandal in Venice has since been forgotten, as the praise for The Master continues–but the worthiness of such praise is complicated, as The Master‘s success or failure resides in a viewer’s own perception of the material, and the material presented is difficult to process.
Constructed as a subjective piece, The Master is not a historical look at the beginnings of the said cult it portrays, interestingly called “The Cause” here, and the Church of Scientology in the real world. The references to Scientology in the mass media, and from Director Paul Thomas Anderson himself, elude to The Master being as much, whereas it is actually the story of one man’s journey as he comes in contact with the cult that is the basis of the story. Finding out how The Cause came to exist is not present in the story, aside from the occasional remarks on its origins and the problems it faces from mainstream America. Those looking to witness an exposé on Scientology will be sorely disappointed. The Master is a film about one man, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), and the relationship he develops with The Cause’s leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
The Master opens with the sound of the sea, and an introduction to the sailor Freddie Quell. The wandering motif of the restless sea corresponds with Freddie’s state of mind. Having been secluded on a ship he finds himself on a beach with his fellow sailors. Freddie is overtly occupied with sex and booze, acting out foul behaviors on a female body sculpted in the sand only to almost instantly feel the embarrassment of his actions. Freddie will remain this childlike character throughout the film. Constantly acting out only to revert back into the insecure shell that is his mind’s state. The war has ended and Freddie is thrown back into a society that does not need him. The odd jobs he picks up along the way lead to trouble, and the booze he makes from paint thinner, and any other available materials, keeps him in a state of confusion and absenteeism from reality. One may go so far as to say Freddie suffers from PTSD, and Paul Thomas Anderson does elude to the possibility early on in the film.
A young man, more a boy, taken off to war to witness and do unspeakable actions against other men and never being given the chance to grow up and mature is the life Freddie has lived. His childlike usage of flatulence jokes and potty mouth phrases come across as unsophisticated for a P.T. Anderson film, having written the scripts for There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, and Boogie Nights. But the need for childish actions and an inability to maintain composure creates Freddie’s character for the viewer. If he were not bordering on sociopathic tendencies and experiencing an extreme case of societal dissidence the struggle Freddie endures on his own and later in The Cause’s grasp would be meaningless. It is his lack of self that draws him to Lancaster Dodd, the need to know more, learn something, beyond what his life has shown him thus far. Although it is a difficult thing to accept when watching the film because just as easily Freddie can be seen as a transparently void individual who may or may not be mentally ill; or possibly he’s just a drunk. Freddie’s immaturity and childlike ways are made even more clear in his relationship with Doris (Madisen Beaty), the girl he left behind and promised to return and marry; a girl the tender age of 16, years younger than him but far more mature in her demeanor and actions. Their relationship is revealed in flashback, and concludes in the present years later when Freddie has relieved himself of his guilt only to discover the futile dreams of youth succumb to time. Freddie does eventually grow up, but the occurrence is swift and without any clear build-up in the plot. His moment of awakening, the breaking point from The Cause is unseen. The third act of The Master is therefore imperfect, creating confusion, but it is Freddie’s time prior with The Cause that is the basis for The Master, yet The Cause cannot be given credit for helping Freddie to heal and mature.
Freddie is a child, and The Cause treats him as such. He is berated for his actions, made to succumb to tests that seem to be more disciplinary against a wild and rambunctious youth set upon by his parents than steps to place Freddie back on the proper path. The vulgarity, the animal behavior must be removed from him. Informal Processing, as it is referred to, is done. A series of questions asked that are commonplace but draw out emotions in the subject. The influential properties of this are inferred upon the viewer, wherein whether they help or hinder Freddie’s progress is never quite answered. This hypnotic control that is attempted to be placed upon Freddie comes from Lancaster Dodd’s writings, his basis for The Cause, but Lancaster is not a strong leader as one would expect, quite the opposite. Herein is what sets The Master as more than a movie about a cult’s pull on a man, as the cult is not nearly strong enough to achieve as much.
Both Freddie and Lancaster Dodd are fragile men, seeking a greater existence but gasping for air with each movement they make. Lancaster may be seen as the savior, the man with the answers to life’s questions, the hero of The Cause, but his hardened philosophical and enlightened exterior is merely a facade as Lancaster Dodd is insecure, he only knows how to mirror his insecurity into creation and control as compared to Freddie’s reckless and unpredictable childlike behavior. Lancaster does not himself believe in what he is writing, or preaching to his followers. His quickly found anger to any form of criticism or healthy debate over his philosophy shows the insecure nature of his leadership. Lancaster is not a strong force, but a remarkably genuine con-man who preys upon the weaknesses of others who yearn for more in their lives; be it answers or relief. Yet his conniving ways are never seen directly by his own actions necessarily, for Lancaster always appears to be overwrought with the stress of proving his theory correct, and more often than not he does not know exactly what he is doing. The temptation to drown himself in Freddie’s homemade booze plays into the fragile state of mind Lancaster has; the temptations he faces he cannot resist, until his wife sets him back on the correct path.
Amy Adams plays the part of Peggy Dodd, Lancaster’s much younger wife and The Cause’s most loyal follower. She is the true believer, the one who can make a remark to Freddie that destroys every semblance of self he may possess. The power of the woman behind the man is at play in The Master, and Peggy is frightening in her determination to prove her husband’s calling is valid. For Freddie she is the hand of discipline while Lancaster is more easily removed from the seriousness of The Cause’s movement to frolic amongst his subjects. A scene involving an impromptu party of followers in The Cause’s Pennsylvania home base results in everyone naked, adoring Lancaster as he puts on a show fueled by booze. The chastising he later succumbs to by Peggy solidifies her control over him; she uses deviance to regain control, an interesting choice considering how proper she eagerly tries to be seen as being and her admonishing of Freddie’s deviant behavior. Lancaster may be the face of The Cause but Peggy is holding great power and control over the situation. Freddie is a threat to such power, creating a conflict between the two that will continue throughout the film. Their final meeting is frightening as Adams’ performance as Peggy and Phoenix’s Freddie overshadow everything else seen thus far. The fragility of Freddie juxtaposed with Peggy’s anger, her fierce determination to break him one final time into submission has repercussions for the viewer’s state of mind that is indescribable. The performances of Phoenix and Hoffman may be those noticed more so than Adams, and they deserve the merit, but she is equally deserving and her character is not soon forgotten.
The performances of the cast warrant great praise and The Master is an actor’s piece. With such amazing performances it is easy to overlook details in the story that cause the film to be less of a success than expected. A severe flaw in the story is the constant reminding of Freddie’s immaturity because it becomes the reasoning behind why he is easily entranced into joining The Cause. The cult’s grasp is then seen as only penetrable to those who are weak and lacking in their own self-awareness and security. Instantly Paul Thomas Anderson has judged members of The Cause, portraying them as feeble-minded. When you consider The Cause can be compared to religion he is making a strong statement on members of a church–that they are also in need of something greater to define themselves and incapable of doing so themselves. The Master cannot decide if it is for or against The Cause, or group belief systems in general, and watching it try and make sense of the entire situation is unnerving. Mostly because The Cause itself is not a uniformed movement with a strongly developed core to its teachings. Because of this the two corresponding elements of the story, that of Freddie’s journey and Lancaster’s movement, are both seeking to fulfill a void. The Master needs a strongly developed voice, a fully functioning element to bind everything together in the story–it does not possess this trait, leaving it to constantly meander through finding meaning and never accomplishing a solution.
The problematic nature of The Master goes beyond the story being shown on screen. You are resigned to pre-conceived ideas about Scientology the minute you begin watching the film because it has been marketed as such. Even the original working title was “Paul Thomas Anderson’s Scientology Movie,” or something similar. Every event, individual, and the like are not given the opportunity to become part of a story because it has been told that this story is in relation to the beginnings of Scientology. The Master does not have an opportunity to grow and expand on its own, to organically create a world where the characters live and the Master himself thrives with his newfound beliefs. Instead it is always considered a preexisting world that is being critiqued and observed from an outsider, only to be drawn in slowly in a hypnotic trance. The Master does succeed in subjecting the audience to the method, the cause, as the mind slowly disintegrates into a form of forced manipulation via the medium of a motion picture. The occurrence is slow and deliberate, and leaves a viewer drained and exhausted. Your emotions having been toyed with along with the character of Freddie, your insecurities a mirror image of his own demons. The Master chastises you for being of your own self, and Peggy Dodd’s carefully crafted manipulation and desire to feed on your insecurities, your self doubt, are undeniably wicked and controlling.
Watching The Master is not an enjoyable experience. Quite the opposite is bound to happen [as it did to me] where it puts you in a deeply depressed state. Your mind is awash with confusion, your emotions feel like they have been manipulated with, toyed, strung out and put on display only to be chastised for being imperfect. It is this reaction, and the many more you have while watching the film, that make it a movie that should earn the greatest respect from moviegoers. You do not have to like The Master to respect it, and that is the honest truth to its unwavering praise by critics. Paul Thomas Anderson has created a film where the viewer is affected beyond measure, a movie where your mind is pushed to the limits, forced to analyze the characters but ones self even more so. The Master brings the viewer’s own insecurities, as mirrored through Freddie’s, out into the open and forces them to evaluate their own state of being. It is uncomfortable and angering to be toyed with as much but refreshing nonetheless because it is the rare film that stays with you, haunts you, and inevitably never completely leaves your subconscious. Paul Thomas Anderson has done the unthinkable, he has created his own cultish properties in The Master that a viewer is swiftly swept into it, unable to escape its grasp.