Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master has moments of true cinematic beauty. There is a shot at the beginning of the film where we see a ship fading from the ocean and then just blue water: enveloping, jagged at parts, and calm in other corners of its vastness. The same came be described of the main character Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix). When we meet Freddie he is with his comrades towards the end of World War II on a beach. He is wild and reckless when hacking at a coconut and minutes later he is lying on the beach grasping the sand maiden he and his peers sculpted– catching his breath, if only for a moment the briefest of calms flash over his face. This is the beginning of a movie with flashes of calm, followed by prolonged chaos urged forward by frantic desire.
Anderson as a director has been great at depicting desire: sexual (Boogie Nights), financial (Magnolia) and in The Master there is a desire for guidance. Freddie like the ocean drifts into the life of Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd describes himself as a philosopher, a scientist and a writer – among many, many other things. It is in Dodd that Freddie hopes to obtain guidance – in how to rule his world, take command of his life, and win his girl (you know what everyone wants). Freddie is taken under Dodd’s wing and lead down a path that some may see as puzzling and others disturbing. Regardless of Dodd’s methods, there are many times in the film that it is evident that Dodd may need Freddie more than Freddie needs Dodd. Hoffman’s character is traveling the country practicing his methods of living and working on his next book, a book that will give meaning to everything in life. Throughout the film, it isn’t Dodd’s philosophy that Freddie buys into as much as the man himself. Some theorists after watching the movie say that the two men were in love – I think that Freddie is in love with the confidence, the bravado and the respect that Dodd carries with what appears to Freddie as ease. Freddie during the duration of the film seems much too interested in women – at times, the purpose seems to just obtain a conquest, at other more sobering parts of the film; it seems Freddie just wants someone to really love him. Phoenix’s character is after all a man who is looking towards his weird poisonous alcoholic concoctions to give him the courage he needs to seize something – women, a job, the world – we can only speculate.
Actors Joaquin Phoenix (left), and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master
The acting is lockdown solid. The piercing moments of honesty (when Dodd does his first “processing” on Freddie) where Freddie admits to Dodd some deep rooted secrets in such a startling quick manner that you almost wish you had a remote to rewind and replay. The rage that Joaquin portrays during parts of the film (particularly in a jail cell) or Hoffman’s façade of a man who knows it all but at times seems to be crumbling on the inside – are sure to get The Master some recognition at the Academy Awards. With a staccato, sometimes screeching soundtrack it leaves the viewers feeling off balance, about what they are seeing before them and anticipating what will happen next – as with this film, it seems anything could happen.
The Master is a perfect title because it leaves the viewer wondering throughout the whole film WHO the master really is – is it Peggy Dodd (played by Amy Adams), Lancaster’s wife who comes off as a wife who in public appears dutiful and demur – but in private is aggressive and the most vocal in fighting for “their cause.” I think The Master in the film is Freddie himself – as like the sea at the start of the film, he cannot be reigned in or restricted. It’s as if he just needed someone to show him the confidence of being in charge of their own life, to master it himself.