I really don’t know what to think or say about The Master. After hearing all the hype and accolades from critics I was definitely interested in checking it out. Don’t get me wrong, what critics like and what audiences like are two different things; but I was a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and did find his last film, 2007’s There Will Be Blood, entertaining. So I was definitely intrigued and interested when critics started waxing poetically about his latest feature The Master.
To set the table, The Master stars Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a bit of a troubled and eccentric sailor who comes back to the US at the end of World War II. Due to either post traumatic stress disorder from the war or his own proclivities, Freddie has a hard time holding down jobs and becomes antagonistic with the people he works with. On the run he happens to stowaway on a ship carrying Lancaster Dodd played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the charismatic leader of a pseudo-science religious group called The Cause. Nicknamed “Master” by his devotees, Dodd takes Freddie in and subjects him to The Cause as a way to help/heal him.
The film beautifully sets up Freddie’s frantic personality in the first thirty minutes of the film as he struggles to fit into social situations in each of his occupations. He starts off well enough in his role on his ship during the war, his first post naval job as a photographer, and as a field hand; but at each step of the way he demonstrates really weird and sometimes deviant behavior and then things always seem to change for the worse. Alcohol, or drinking of some sort, almost always seems to be involved as well so you can never quite tell what the root cause of his personality issues are.
Meanwhile the film starts to turn when Freddie and Dodd cross paths. Dodd took Freddie in, but I was never really sure why or if he had ulterior motives. Over the course of Freddie’s indoctrination into The Cause, I never got the feeling that he was getting “better.” His overt sexual thoughts, alcoholism, and disruptive behavior almost always remained the same. The only thing that did change was Freddie’s belief in what Dodd was selling, as later in the film he would retaliate against those who challenged or doubted Dodd. Through it all, Dodd always seemed to be in control and unfazed by anything that Freddie, Dodd’s own followers, or even skeptics threw at him. If he was unsure about anything having to do with The Cause, he never showed it–and never did he seem malicious.
In the end, the film left me with more questions than it gave me answers. Was Freddie always a troubled soul, or did the war turn him this way? Was Freddie ever a faithful disciple of The Cause? And were Dodd’s motives in taking in Freddie in good faith or did he mean to brainwash him? Did The Cause do Freddie any good? Does the title of the film refer to Dodd since he is, well, the character with that name? The movie certainly isn’t about him. Or could it be in reference to something that Freddie is searching for–a, or rather THE, master to set him on the right path in life? I’d like to think I’m smart enough to know that it’s my latter guess. At the end of the day, I can’t, dear reader, give you any good answers.
The Master definitely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and if you’re more of a mainstream person you’d probably best steer clear. If you are open to art house cinema then you may want to check it out. At the very least you’ll get to see a stellar performance by Joaquin Phoenix and great supporting turns by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. Other than that, there’s not that much else I can recommend. The master of this domain, I ain’t.
The Master is currently in its second weekend of release at Consolidated Kahala 8 and Regal Dole Cannery 18.
Rating-3/5 stars // Rated R // Runtime 2hr 16min