“If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world,” utters Lancaster Dodd to a dreary, troubled and emotionally disturbed loner, Freddie Quell. Lancaster, who describes himself as a writer, doctor, nuclear physicist and philosopher, is the Master of the title, a spiritual guru and leader of a small cult. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has always been engrossed in delivering character studies, whether it is a gritty oilman in There Will Be Blood or the emotionally abused sibling looking for love in Punch Drunk Love. In The Master he expands his craft and continues to delve into the psyche of his characters. The results here are two fine performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but unfortunately, Anderson’s storytelling has taken a huge hit.
Set in the period just after WWII, The Master, which is loosely based on sci-fi novelist and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, starts off with some of the most powerful imagery and filmmaking of the year. It paints the perfect picture of veteran fighters who have suffered a mental breakdown due to the trauma of war. At the center is Freddie Quell, a violent, emotionally unstable seaman, who is unable to fit back into society. Along his travels from place to place, he meets Lancaster aboard a ship. Not long after, the charismatic fast-talking Lancaster takes Freddie on as a project, convinced that he can cure the misfit of his mental problems. But does Lancaster really have the answers to all of Freddie’s questions? Or is Lancaster simply making up the rules of his beliefs as he goes along? Freddie soon finds himself at the forefront of the cult, another one of the many followers who regard Lancaster as a sage.
The main fault with The Master lies in the fact that Anderson doesn’t commit to too much of anything – not story, not character development, not faith, not spirituality, not science, not anything. Instead he allows the two great actors (three if you count Amy Adams) to be the center of attention, both delivering memorable scenes in an unmemorable plot. Although the mystery remains interesting, most viewers will leave confused by what they’ve just watched – there is no real conclusion. And while the commitment of both Hoffman and Phoenix to their roles is impressive, like Freddie Quell, at times you’ll feel completely lost at sea.
It’s an important and remarkable work, but Anderson is capable of much better.
“Marriage, previous to The Cause, was *awful*. Awful. There’s a cycle, like life. Birth, excitement, growth, decay. Death. Now… now. How about this? Here comes, a large dragon. Teeth! Blood dripping! Red eyes! What do I got? A lasso. And I whip it up, I wrap it around its neck, and I wrestle! Wrestle! Wrestle him to the ground. I snap up, I say “Sit, dragon!” Dragon sits. I say “Stay!”, dragon stays. Now it’s got a leash on. Take it for a walk. And that’s what-where we’re at with it now. It stays on command. Next we’re gonna teach it to roll over and play dead.” – Lancaster Dodd