¨If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.¨
The Master is a magnetic and hypnotic film, one that is definitely not for the casual viewer and that will require multiple viewings if you want to grasp the many different meanings of the film. I am not sure I really understood everything, but I can honestly say that I was hooked from the beginning and attracted to these characters that were searching for answers in life in an unusual way. Paul Thomas Anderson himself has become a master in directing these films with multiple meanings and interpretations through his character studies. He takes more time than other directors (this was made five years after There Will Be Blood, and 10 years after Punch-Drunk Love) and this is only his sixth feature film since he began directing in 1996 (between 96 and 99 he directed three films: Sydney, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia). He has slowed down and taken time with his movies now trying to perfect his craft by creating fully developed characters. Anderson has created a fan base and critics tend to love his films, but his movies aren’t for everyone as they require a serious audience because they can be challenging at times. Another thing Anderson has learned to do very well over time is to get the best performance from his actors. In There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day Lewis was spectacular, in Punch-Drunk Love we saw Adam Sandler give the performance of his life time, and now in The Master Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman give tremendous and powerful performances. Their characters in this film are what make this movie so hypnotic and engaging. They have tremendous chemistry together and there are several hidden meanings behind their performances open to various interpretations. They had a tremendous script to work with as well since Anderson has become a master at creating these challenging character studies. This is a very smart and well crafted film and one that you need to pay close attention too.
We are introduced from the very opening scene to a World War II naval veteran, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who seems to have suffered a very traumatic experience. He´s an alcoholic, in one scene we even see him drinking gasoline from the ship, and he is constantly mixing alcohol with toxic substances. He´s a very disturbed and troubled man suffering from PTSD breakdowns, we see him having trouble to adapt to normal society picking fights with his customers while working as a photographer and constantly drinking and thinking about sex. He has an incident where he might have killed a man when he offered him one of his poisonous drinks which he has learned to digest. While running away from a couple of men after that incident he hides out on a ship where he´s introduced to a sort of strange cult known as The Cause. He befriends Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who the rest of the crew call the Master, and the two take a liking for each other. The Master is a very charismatic leader who finds in Freddie someone who he can help to clear his emotions. Through a series of questions which the master calls processing he tries to help Freddie. Freddie becomes part of the movement as he joins Lancaster and his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams) as sort of their right hand man. The Cause begins to grow thanks to the Master´s leadership, but Freddie still has trouble controlling his emotions and alcohol abuse. The only person in the cult that seems to like Freddie is the Master himself, who seems to be coming up with his ideas as he goes along with the movement. Freddie himself has some doubts about the movement as they go along.
This is really a fascinating psychological drama with some of the greatest performances of the year. Phoenix´s physical performance stands out above the rest, but Hoffman is so charismatic that he even attracts the viewer and makes us stick with this confounding film. It demands the viewer’s complete attention, and in the end it rewards it with a fascinating ending open to many interpretations. There are several outstanding scenes like the processing scene where Hoffman questions Phoenix and brings up some things about his disturbed past. The scenes these two actors share together are all memorable; among my favorites are the jail scene and the final scene between them in London. Everything happening here can be processed in very different ways, but it really did satisfy me. Many people have said this was going to be a film about scientology, and there are perhaps some underlying hints that can make you think that way, but most of all it is a character study between two men who seem to have problems of their own. I felt that by the ending of the film, despite Freddie´s consistent troubles, he in a way tries to become a master himself. Perhaps he is the future Ron Hubbard, but of course the film is open to several different interpretations. This is a movie that hooks you from the beginning and will have you thinking about it long after the credits role. That is how you measure a truly successful film.