Movie review: The Master
An alienating film about cultlike figure asks tough questions and is unwilling to take sides
Posted: January 16, 2013
Take a long hard look. Joaquin Phoenix plays the awkward and difficult-to-read Freddie Quell.
Despite what you may have heard, The Master is not about the origins of Scientology. In fact, though the psychobabble in which its charismatic central character engages would have you believe that an understanding of the human psyche's origins are the ultimate goal, the film itself is more interested in the people who peddle easy explanations to complex issues of personality.
Anyone who saw Anderson's previous film, There Will Be Blood, will be familiar with his ruthless view of organized religion. Although the ideology of the group in The Master is never called a religion, many of its principles are indistinguishable from those of the world's more well-known faiths, and the film itself also suggests a heavy skepticism of psychotherapy. Unlike the recent Life of Pi, which was all about the acceptance of religion while never taking a firm stand on the importance of truth, The Master looks at the kinds of people who are most easily swept up by the apparent certainties espoused by leaders so convinced of their own righteousness and truthfulness that the solutions they offer are very tempting.
It's 1950, shortly after the end of World War II, and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who served in the Navy, is an emotional mess. Often drunk and very awkward, we find him in one of the film's opening scenes masturbating on a beach. Quell lands a job as a photographer in a department store, but after he starts mixing his own concoction of paint thinner and orange juice, he eventually has a breakdown. One night, he stumbles onto a boat and piques the attention of a man everyone addresses as "Master": Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has a cultlike following for "the Cause," a program that seeks answers in the distant, imaginary past.
Well aware of the man's vulnerability - and perhaps his fragility - Dodd will try to act as his savior as he has done so often for so many other people. Following an approach he has spent years perfecting that requires subjects to expose themselves, answering questions repeatedly until resistance and pretense are eviscerated, Dodd also tells them they are not allowed to blink, lest he start the questioning all over again.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
With Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern
It is a demeaning process, but Quell, in desperate need of salvation, subjects himself to this treatment because it seems Dodd is respected by those around him, and also because he seems to have the answers for one's present-day afflictions: Everything negative is the result of some bad thing that happened in a previous life, perhaps trillions ("with a 't' ") of years ago. Quell submits to this line of inquiry, and Dodd enthusiastically proceeds; there is mutual curiosity on both sides.
Not everyone buys this argument, of course, but Dodd doesn't take criticism very well: He considers himself the chosen one who has all the explanations. He may know he is a con man, but we don't get any insight into his own thoughts, or what inner conflicts he has, because the focus is squarely on Quell.
And yet, despite all this attention (he is in every single scene of the film), Quell remains a mystery because Anderson's film is so incredibly intent on withholding easy answers. The story develops quickly, but the characters do so much more slowly, revealing tiny bits of themselves that may or may not be another mask. That is especially true of both Quell and Dodd.
The hypnosis or quasi-psychotherapy that occurs by going through "a time hole" is supposed to lead people to answers, but quite the opposite may be true, and in this way the search for truth is fundamentally impeded. At one point, Quell walks back and forth between a window and wall and has to describe what he feels when he reaches them. He starts with basic observations, but gradually becomes more abstract, to the point where anything can be anything. This euphoric conclusion is one of the film's clearest signs that Dodd is a big fraud, but, for the most part, we stay on the outside of events.
The Master contains many moments that don't quite make sense but which we willingly accept because they fit into the slightly vague but far from inaccessible world that Anderson has created. Questions about the real relationship between Dodd and Quell and the reason why the first shot - of the trail left by a ship on open water - is repeated throughout the film don't have easy answers. The moment you find yourself sure of a point of view or the director of a character's development, the film throws you a curveball.
The images are stunningly rich in color, and the score by Johnny Greenwood, reminiscent of the more minimalist pieces in Anderson's spellbinding 2002 film, Punch-Drunk Love, is eerie and almost ever-present in the first half of the film.
Unlike Anderson's early films Boogie Nights and Magnolia, The Master is not filled to the brim with information and excitement, and he no longer showcases his skill in constructing complicated tracking shots. This film is lyrical but slightly alienating as it is an innately opaque contemplation of manipulation that, unlike Dodd, is hesitant about providing easy answers.
Some might even wonder what exactly the question was.
André Crous can be reached at