The film is titled The Master, but it focuses mainly on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) a man who is anything but. He’s a damaged World War II veteran and alcoholic. When we meet him he is passing time by humping a woman made of sand and masturbating into the ocean. Freddie’s main hobby is inventing liquor potions out of anything he can find such as coconuts, paint thinner or photo chemicals. He seems to have a golden touch and can customize the concoctions right down to the drinker’s desired taste. He is a very odd and comical fellow, like he’s not all there. Freddie is obsessed with sex and his body and face are twisted up like barbed wire. Following his discharge after the war Freddie begins drifting. He first takes a job working as a photographer at a department store where he starts to excel as an artist but following a violent outburst he leaves and then tries his hand at picking cabbage on a farm in Salinas, CA. While there he puts together one of his extremely potent cocktails but an older man who tries some gets sick and Freddie is chased away by the other workers because they think he poisoned him.
One night, while aimlessly walking along the shore, Freddie sees a yacht that is lit up like a beacon, he is drawn right to it and jumps onboard. He is after all an ex-Navy boat sailor and needs another vessel to float away on. The ship is holding a joyous celebration and the host is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) a writer, philosopher, scientist and instructor. Dodd has a boisterous, charming spirit and seems to be a bottomless barrel of wisdom whom his friends love to listen to. After stowing away and falling asleep, the next morning Freddie is brought to see Dodd who doesn’t know where he came from, but has sampled his libation creations and wants him to make more. Dodd then invites Freddie to become a part of his community of seekers which is called “The Cause”. Without anyplace to go, Freddie joins up and begins to learn about Dodd’s self help practices. One of the first lessons he takes part in is called Processing, which is a line of questioning that is done to help to purge the patient of their past traumas.
The Cause is an intruiguing concept but Freddie continues to drink and act erraticly as he follows Dodd’s teachings. The two begin to form a strong bond like brothers, a yin and a yang. Dodd is the astute responsible older sibling, while Freddie is the wreckless younger child whose careless farts and giggles cause the elder brother to join in. In a strange way, Dodd sees something familiar in Freddie, maybe admires him for being the way he is, maybe it’s his endearing lost soul personality. He calls him a rascal, a scoundrel, and takes to him like a wounded animal he feels he needs to protect. While Freddie believes in Dodd even The Master’s own son Val (Jessie Plemons) doubts his genius, claiming he’s just making things up as he goes along.
The Cause’s collective hearts are in the right place but trouble comes into their bubble world when Dodd is arrested for practicing medicine without a license. The cops also haul Freddie into jail after he gets into an altercation with the police. While in their adjacent cells, the two have a heated fight. Freddie calls Dodd a liar and accuses him of being a big scam artist. Following their incarceration, the two quickly make amends and Dodd, his faithful wife Peggy (Amy Adams), son in law Clark (Rami Malek) and Freddie goto the desert for an exercise on a motorcycle. Dodd’s idea is to aim the motorbike at a spot in the horizon and drive towards it. Dodd goes first then returns but when Freddie’s turn comes up he speeds off and dissapears. He ends up traveling back to his hometown on the East Coast to see his estranged girlfriend. Freddie learns she is married with children, which leaves him dissapointed but happy for her. He then has a dream while sleeping in a movie theater that Dodd phones him and tells him to journey to England where The Cause has moved to. Freddie follows this direction but when he meets with The Master he is given a final ultimatum: he must either devote himself to The Cause forever or leave and not return.
There are no real answers to any of the questions posed in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest cinematic exploration. But that’s really the beauty of it, there can be all sorts of interpretations. Even The Master doesn’t know what life is all about, he can only try to create theories and attempt to help others through various rituals and exercises. As I watched the film I realized that organized religion itself, when you really step outside and look at it, is really a strange thing. All our ancestors could really do was put together a general framework, a set of laws, a path to follow that would keep us from falling into oblivion. Maybe, just maybe Freddie with all his flaws, tics and post traumatic pain actually knows more than The Master. Could it be his lust and need for love is the solution to all those troubles that Dodd’s teachings could never resolve?
The Master is a gorgeous looking work of cinema so even if the subject matter doesn’t particularly grab you the visually expressive, beautifully shot moviemaking will be enough to hold your attention. It was filmed in 65mm and was photographed by Mihai Malaimare Jr who took over for PTA’s usual DP Robert Elswit. Paul Thomas Anderson continues to venture into uncharted territories with this piece. In his previous work There Will Be Blood, he dealt with the topic of the early 20th century oil industry, with The Master he is focused on post-war organized religion (The Cause is based on Scientology). Both films deal with human beings that are lost or disconnected from society in some way. The score by Jonny Greenwood who worked on his previous film has again delivered a mesmerizing audio accompaniment to the offkilter trek we make with Freddie and Dodd. The soundtrack also features some truly special period music such as “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” by Ella Fitzgerald, “No Other Love” by Jo Stafford and “Changing Partners” by Helen Forrest. As inspiration for the story, Anderson combined a variety of different pieces of history like his own unused scenes from There Will Be Blood, stories that that the late actor Jason Robards told him on the set of Magnolia about his time in the Navy during World War II, as well as the biographies of John Steinbeck and L. Ron Hubbard. He also researched the lives of Hubbard’s early followers.
BLU RAY REVIEW
VIDEO: Presented 1080p (1:85:1) Letterbox – The film looks stunning and this high definition presentation should be the only way viewers experience it. Colors are vivid and dark contrasts are rich and deep. The set designs and scenery are beautifully shot so you can really pick up all the attention to detail and get the depth of the 1950s period the story is set in.
AUDIO: BLU RAY: DTS HD 5.1 Surround Sound / DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1
- Back Beyond (20 Min): Outtakes, Additional Scenes with Music by Jonny Greenwood – Some bloopers and extra footage that wasn’t included in the movie.
- Unguided Message: 8 Min Short/Behind the Scenes – Some clips of work on the film set.
- LET THERE BE LIGHT (58 Min): John Huston’s 1946 Documentary aout WWII veterans
- Teasers/Trailers – All the promotional teasers and trailers that were posted onto the Internet leading up to the film’s release.
FINAL WORD: The Master is another masterwork from visionary filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson and this home video release is great, although an audio commentary would’ve been a welcomed bonus feature. Still, for fans who already saw and love the movie, you won’t be dissapointed with the transfer. Highly recommended!
Academy Award Nominations
Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix
Best Supporting Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Best Supporting Actress: Amy Adams