The Master

Posted on December 3, 2012


The Master

It’s been thirteen days since I watched it, but countless review reads and several empty attempts at foraging for subtext later, The Master still doesn’t mean a lot to me.

In the eyes of those that seem to know best, Paul Thomas Anderson can do no wrong. His back catalogue of critically acclaimed movies is nothing short of intimidating and the critics are positively salivating over his latest ‘masterpiece’, as those pun-happy wordsmiths keep calling it. But what about those of us that simply head to the cinema for a couple of hours of entertainment and mild intellectual stimulation? Mere plebs, like me.

I’m a complete PTA virgin, I haven’t even seen Boogie Nights (I know, I know) and am by no means any kind of film buff. I went into The Master expecting it go over my head, and that’s the only aspect of the experience I wasn’t disappointed by.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a disturbed alcoholic naval officer who can’t seem to hold down a job or a woman after World War II. The only thing he seems to be any good at is creating potent, boozy cocktails out of any chemicals he can get his hands on – from developer fluid to cough syrup.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, a self proclaimed ‘writer, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher’ who takes Freddie in after he stumbles onto his yacht in a drunken stupor and stows away. Dodd’s strange ideas about reincarnation, the subconscious and his use of ‘processing’ to get to the roots of a person’s true nature have won him a large following, and it becomes obvious that his organisation ‘The Cause’ is something of a cult.

Anderson has been reticent to discuss any links with Scientology. He rejects claims that The Master is based on the early days of the Church of Scientology and the activities of its founder L Ron Hubbard, instead stating that Dodd is only partly based on Hubbard, and that the film doesn’t deal with the organisation at a wider level. Which is fair enough, as we really don’t get a great deal of insight into where The Cause has sprung from – it’s presence is more a loose device around which the film’s bizarre rabble of characters can interact.

Freddie Quell

Joaquin Phoenix plays wayward sailor, Freddie Quell

Freddie becomes Dodd’s right hand man, travelling around America with him to help recruit new members, aggressively defending him in the face of critics, and being subjected to Dodd’s strange blend of questioning and practical exercises – designed to help Freddy in some elusive way. We learn of an old flame Freddie clearly regrets letting go of and Dodd’s wife Sue – played by Amy Adams – becomes increasingly insistent that Freddie just doesn’t want to get better.

This is where everything seems to grind to a halt. The characters drive the story, not the other way round. The characters are the story, yet this is where I run into difficulties. The relationship between Dodd and Freddie is so bewildering, as is that between Dodd and his wife – who seems fiercely devoted to both The Cause and her husband, yet openly gives Dodd permission to sleep with other women (or men, it’s not clear). It’s as if Anderson knows something we don’t and won’t let us in on the secret – which makes for frustrating and uncomfortable viewing.

It’s obvious the characters are complex, yet we’re not really allowed to scratch beneath the surface. Phoenix gives an incredible performance as a man drifting into some indeterminable void, but I can’t invest in his character in any way – the end of the film doesn’t provide us with any resolutions or progression, we’re not sure what’s going to become of Freddie and I find myself not really caring.

It’s a beautiful film to look at, no-one can argue with that. I don’t doubt that it’s lovingly crafted and produced and perhaps is meant to be more appreciated than enjoyed, but two hours in I was bored and emotionally numb. Even the most exquisite, beautiful piece of art in the world is useless to me if it leaves me this cold.


Lancaster Dodd –
Freddie Quell –