Very few filmmakers accomplish what Paul Thomas Anderson has accomplished. Through great storytelling and well-developed characters, Anderson has given us some of the most memorable movies of this generation has ever seen. After a limited weekend run last week, audiences around the country will finally get to see the powerful and fearless movie called The Master.
The Master tells the story of a deeply disturbed military drifter named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who finds himself enamored with the words of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the man who founded a new faith-based organization called The Cause.
There will be those who draw parallels to Scientology after they watch this film. Indeed Anderson’s film is based on the early teachings of Ron L Hubbard, and uses similar methods like “processing” to convey that note, but the film is focuses on the themes of the human condition and what like to be an outsider who longs for affection. Freddie constantly suffers throughout the film trying to be a part of something he can’t be a part of. He tries acclimate himself into a society in which he cannot fully understand, and because he cannot understand that his actions have consequences, he constantly positions himself to be the outsider. Between the statutory rape and the incest, Freddie’s bonds are very questionable. His alcoholism puts himself and others in danger, and it comes to a point where he is at the end of his rope. But he seems to find refugee when he finds The Cause.
Phoenix brings the Freddie Quell to life by twisting the idea and the nature of acting a out character by immersing himself in the role. His eyes, words, tone of voice, rage, and body language makes the audience believe that Freddie is more likely to lose control and put his inner demons into submission by using Lancaster’s teachings. Freddie’s outbursts are a cry for help, but it is a kind of help that can only be fulfilled by sex and alcohol. As more people around start to lose faith and question Freddie, Lancaster continues to love him like a prodigal son.
Lancaster believes that his faith-based organization is for those who truly believe and for those whose souls are lost. Which is why Freddie finds such comfort with The Cause. Try as he might, Freddie cannot fit in with this cause. His presence also seems to confuse Lancaster to a point where, his newly sparked inspiration is misconstrued as unnecessary pressure for him to hastily publish his second set of teachings. Despite some of those within his own circle like his son Val Dodd (Jesse Plemons) and devoted disciples like Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern) begin to questioning the validity of The Cause, Lancaster continues to strive foward, using his wife and Freddie as motivation.
Hoffman gives us a charming performance of a deeply inquisitive man who feels that it is his mission to change the world. In the film Lancaster is first seen as a fun loving guy, passionate about humans progressing to a much better place and bringing out one’s true spirit. But as the film progresses, we also see a vulnerable man whose spurts of inspiration is also his downfall.
This is where Amy Adams’ character comes in. Adams plays as Peggy Dodd, the wife of Lancaster Dodd, who is committed to The Cause, despite some of the flaws it may have and some of the people who may question their beliefs. In what can be seen as her most dangerous and boldest roles in her career, Adams’ character is one of the most fascinating. There isn’t a moment in this movie where she blinks or flinches. Adams has this unwavering presence that she brings to the screen that is not only terrifying but absolutely hypnotic as well. Some may think that Peggy is the one who is actually running the show because she is the one giving the ultimatums, giving the cold stares, commanding Dodd attack first before they attack him, and she is the one manipulating her husband by masturbating him. Ultimately Peggy makes herself to be the strongest of the three characters through undying devotion and sheer will.
The three main characters share a significant amount of time with each other. The relationships they share are very different when one of the characters is not present. Every moment we see Lancaster and Freddie together, the tension between the two garners an unexpected result, and this draws the audience into the movie like a warm light. However, whenever Peggy is in a scene, she is cold, manipulative, and uninviting. But that left me wanting to see more of her character.
The film looks absolutely gorgeous on a 70mm screen. The black frame that surrounds the moving picture is unique and adds a one of a kind sparkle to the film that makes the film feel like it was shot in 1950 and makes the close ups of the characters feel more powerful. Paul Thomas Anderson has outdone himself, creating yet another film with multiple thought provoking layers. Has Lancaster truly given up on Freddie? Is there more to the relationship between Lancaster and Freddie than just spiritual one? The film ends with plenty of unresolved questions, questions that will never be answered. But I can’t help but think the answers are somewhere in the film, we just have to determine if those questions need to be answered.