Special Review by Scott Pagliaroni
In the wake of war, nations have had to deal with the inherent issue of having their soldiers return to a life they are unaccustomed it. While they have had to endure boredom, terror, and perhaps perform acts unthinkable, life at home continues to trudge forward, with or without those who left to fight. These changing times, in combination with an influx of idle, yet ready, hearts, minds, and hands can lead to a birth of many new ideas and ventures. Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master’ covers one such movement.
At the outset of ‘The Master’, protagonist Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, ‘Walk the Line’), a U.S. Navy man, is seen whiling away the hours at the end of World War II before being discharged back into civilian life. In the midst of a variety of rudimentary psychology exams, he is told that he will have a tough time readjusting to ‘normal life’, but that it is the right time to do something new, such as open a business or go back to school. Freddie, shown drinking torpedo fuel as an alcohol substitute, is not exactly college-bound material. After bouncing between jobs, concocting various homemade (and probably quite dangerous) liquors along the way, Freddie finds himself on the run and stows away aboard a ship which, unbeknownst to him, is leaving port for a long journey. This nomadic, coincidental move sets forth his life path for the foreseeable future.
Aboard the ship, Freddie meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, ‘Capote’), the host of the ship who is taken by Freddie’s liquor, candor, and baseness. When asked of his profession, Lancaster replies with many titles, but primarily a man, with a thirst for knowledge. He has a belief that humans are above animals, and, therefore, should be better than them by avoiding common urges and emotions which would lower someone to that of a lesser beast. Lancaster sees Freddie for his simpleton and base urges, and decides that he will become his protégé.
Upon joining with Lancaster and his followers, Freddie gets to experience Dodd’s primary belief, that we as humans are ‘sleeping’, have lived many lives before, and need to be awakened from our current state. Exterior doubters arise, questioning the veracity of Lancaster’s claims, or his cult-like following. Freddie stands out in the group, and some of Dodd’s inner circle, including his ardent wife, Peggy (Amy Adams, ‘Doubt’), and daughter (Ambyr Childers, ‘All My Children’), do not trust Freddie, or question the reason Dodd retains his presence. Freddie’s bond is what drives a large amount of the plot and movie.
There have been five years since P.T. Anderson’s previous film, ‘There Will Be Blood’, which centered upon father-son relationships, with both actual progeny, and bonds and relationships made that were very paternal in nature. ‘The Master’ also delves into this territory, mainly exploring this surrogate familial dynamic between Lancaster and Freddie. Lancaster’s birth son from a previous marriage, Val (Jesse Plemons, ‘Friday Night Lights’), is following his father on his journey, but seems to be disinterested his affairs. This distance between a father and his son leaves open for the possibility of someone to fill that need or role in Lancaster’s life, which is where Freddie steps in. The main problem with their relationship (which occasionally could be mistaken for some kind of homoeroticism) is that despite his affinity for Freddie, Lancaster appears to truly view him as an oddity, an animal, something that he can tame, cure, or heal.
Much like P. T. Anderson’s other works, ‘The Master’ is a meticulous piece of film craft that resounds as a work of art. Jonny Greenwood, mainly known for his work in the band Radiohead, delivered the score for ‘There Will Be Blood’, and once again provides a moody, yet tense accompaniment to Anderson’s direction. Both leads are in top form, with Hoffman’s restraint and charisma almost upstaging Phoenix’s raw, animalistic performance. One scene in particular stands out of as one of the best, most intense scenes seen in some time. A dense collection of vignettes, ‘The Master’ displays artful ideas about humanity and cult of personality that will be worth revisiting.
Recommended if you like:
-There Will Be Blood
-Sound of My Voice