Like a shot of hard bourbon, “The Master” is a tough film to swallow — but one that’s meant to be. And that’s, in part, what makes the film so terrific.
In this gorgeously presented intense character study of two enigmatic and deeply flawed individuals, Paul Thomas Anderson employs a tender narrative ebb-and-flow that creates for some of the finest — and most stirring — performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s careers.
Its rich, ambiguous text (one that still mystifies me) is sure to be a turnoff for some audiences, but the mystery and ambiguity that surrounds its central characters is what makes it so appealing.
Inspired by the cult of L. Ron Hubbard and the early years of the formation of Scientology, “The Master” follows Freddy Quell (Phoenix), a WWII vet with mental troubles piled as high as his abhorrent alcoholism, who is fired from job after job until he happens upon the yacht of an enigmatic leader Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman).
Though Dodd and his legion of followers are clearly inspired by Scientology (there was some ambiguousness of the Scientology aspect of the film before its release. Make no mistake, the influence is as clear as day), the film isn’t about Scientology, it’s merely an aspect of the narrative that serves as the catalyst for the conflict between the two characters.
The film opens on a tropical beach somewhere in the Pacific. Quell is shown among his fellow soldiers, enjoying the downtime — presumably much-needed from the horrors of war — but he’s also shown as a sort of loner. When he does interact, it’s an awkward, uncomfortable interaction.
In one scene, Freddy joins a group of soldiers to help finish a sand sculpture of a naked lady. Eventually, he begins dry-humping the sand-sculpture in such an uncomfortable manner that it drives most of his comrades away. Freddy’s social ineptness, trigger-hair temper, and overt alcoholism make him an almost too-perfect candidate for Dodd’s unorthodox, free-thinking new “religion.”
Dodd recruits Freddy, and begins his “processing” — a form of treatment to reach Dodd’s ideas of enlightenment and way-of-living in which Freddy is subjected to a series of uncomfortable, intimate questions repeated at a rapid-fire pace (“Have you ever had sex with a family member? Have you ever killed someone? Have you ever killed someone? Have you ever killed someone?”).
As the film progresses, Dodd and his cronies are scrutinized by the public for their movement, and Freddy’s temper threatens to undo all of their work. Dodd’s wife (played by Amy Adams) is wary of Freddy, but Dodd sees something in him and their relationship is strung together throughout by a series of occurrences and misgivings that both define and undefine their characters.
Working on an extra large canvas (“The Master” was shot on 65mm film, and demands to be seen on the appropriately large screen), Anderson’s one slight isn’t a lack of ambition, but rather, that the psychology of his film overreaches. The film resists pigeonholing as strongly as it resists a rational description. It’s a collection of stirring scene after stirring scene, strung together by two complex characters, whose psyche and motivation remain a mystery throughout. The result is a film so steeped in layers that it demands multiple viewings to unravel its narrative complexities and character ambiguities.