This is going to be a slightly different kind of review, devoted mostly to my, probably somewhat limited, analysis of the film’s themes rather than a highlighting of all the outstanding elements that the film has to offer. So I’m afraid that it isn’t going to make much sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the film. Hell, it might not even make much sense to anyone who has seen the film either. I’ve watched several more films since last Friday morning, but there hasn’t been an extended period of time where The Master has left my mind. I feel now that I can humbly add my own limited views on a work that continues to assert itself in my thoughts as one of the best films of the year.
It’s a little surprising then that at the film’s simplest level is seemingly the story of one man’s lengthy attempt to get laid. Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell has a sex obsession that is clear right from the outset, as he mimes intercourse with a woman made of sand, then goes away to jerk himself off into the ocean. When he’s looking at inkblots, all he sees is genitalia. Later, he seduces a department store showroom girl, but when out on a date with the girl he passes out from drinking too much. When Freddie finds himself in the company of Lancaster Dodd on the boat, it isn’t long before he starts to proposition girls for sex. At a meeting in the house of Laura Dern’s character Helen Sullivan, he imagines all the women in the room with no clothes on. It isn’t until the very end that Freddie Quell gets the sexual contact that has been on his mind for most of the film, although by this point it’s debatable whether he still feels the real desire anymore for any kind of human contact. He appears to be perfectly content lying next to his sand woman.
That’s a fairly reductive analysis, and a long way of me getting to the point that the character of Freddie Quell is one who is motivated by the basest desires. Like There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview, Freddie Quell doesn’t prescribe to the same ideals and beliefs that most people do. Unlike Daniel Plainview, who seemed primarily motivated by his own ambition and need for power, Freddie doesn’t appear to have much ambition, although he does seem curious enough to expand his viewpoint and see if there could be any way to find a higher purpose and meaning. This curiosity leads him onto a ship, where he meets Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, a man who, at least on first glance, looks like he could offer Freddie some more substance. Thus begins a variation of the father/son relationship that Paul Thomas Anderson has continually explored throughout his filmography, although here the connections between the two central figures are a little different.
Dodd frequently refers to Freddie as an “animal,” and indeed their relationship feels less like father and son and more like master and loyal companion (adding another meaning to the title). In Dodd’s world, where he controls a flock of sheep that follow his every word and command, Freddie could be the loyal shepherd dog that maintains the order. So Dodd sets about training the wild animal, from the initial scene of processing to the lengthy training episode that seems to revolve around teaching him to maintain control in the face of provocation. The road isn’t easy, and there are times when Freddie’s nature causes him to act out, either when he’s throwing food at a questioning outsider or when he’s attacking law enforcement. Dodd’s wife Peggy doesn’t think he can be tamed, but Dodd is more hopeful. Eventually Freddie’s nature is reigned in, and when a convention in held in Phoenix to promote “Book 2,” Freddie walks around in an incredibly high-waisted and constraining outfit. It’s not too much of a stretch to view this attire as representing some kind of a collar, or a leash. This doesn’t mean that he has been completely tamed though, and indeed, in one of the film’s standout sequences, Freddie hops on a motorcycle and drives away from Dodd, never looking back. Even a loyal animal is capable of getting lost sometimes.
This leads to the final confrontation between Dodd and Freddie in England. Freddie has been led there, I think he says by a dream (although it’s sometimes tough to hear Phoenix’s dialogue), to discover where the two of them have met in a past life. Anderson never establishes how long the two of them have been separated, although in this case the length of time might have been substantial, seeing as how Dodd in the time between their separation opens a school and is running it when Freddie arrives. The fairly cold reaction from Dodd and Peggy seems to suggest that they did not invite Freddie there. By this point, both of them have basically given up on Freddie, but Dodd still has an admiration for him. I’m struggling to remember exactly what he says, but Dodd admires how Freddie seems immune to human worries about never finding the proper place and the proper cause. The character of Dodd seems to be an incredibly sad one, someone who maybe before had dreams and ideas before being weighed down by his followers’ relentless desire for meaning. He doesn’t even seem to be concerned anymore about delivering a consistent message, as seen in the moment when Dern questions him about a slight variation on a phrase. His wife Peggy seems to be the true force behind The Cause, a Lady Macbeth character that holds all the power and controls everything from the sidelines. No, Dodd by the end of the film is profoundly jealous of Freddie, someone who can find happiness in the simplest of desires, the ideal being and possibly the only one in existence. And when Dodd offers Freddie to choice to stay or leave, Freddie realizes that his lengthy diversion to The Cause hasn’t given him any sense of deeper fulfillment. In the end, he may still retain something from his time with The Cause, as seen in bed with the woman that he attempts to process (apparently, because this was another scene that I couldn’t understand much of the dialogue), but he ultimately doesn’t need any Cause to be happy.
Looking back on all this writing, I’m not entirely sure if it makes any sense or if I’m at least on the right track, but it’s still something I continue to think about. I didn’t even really talk about the cult angle much, in part because I’m not convinced it’s the defining element of the film. You could read it all as simply Anderson’s dismissal of the need for contentment and meaning in cults or religious institutions, but I think there’s more to the film than that. At this point I should probably take a little time for some more standard review thoughts, mainly that the film is absolutely stunning to watch and that the performances are outstanding. One particular shot, as the boat moves under a bridge at sunset, might be the most breathtaking image I’ve seen in a film this year. Philip Seymour Hoffman is magnetic as the leader of The Cause, while Joaquin Phoenix admittedly brings a little bit of his I’m Still Here personality to his role, although here he’s working with material with substantially more substance. Amy Adams also gives one of the best performances of her career, even if her character remains mostly in the background. There is a part of me that misses the almost wild energy of Anderson’s older works, particularly Boogie Nights and Magnolia. His two more recent features have been more stately and controlled. There Will Be Blood at least offered a few moments of manic intensity, but The Master remains a fairly low-key work throughout, with the exception of a couple moments of exploding emotions. Supposedly Anderson is working on an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice for his next project, which is something that I’d love to see. Still, whatever he decides to pursue, he’s one of the few filmmakers working today that has earned my full respect and attention, and The Master is another worthy addition to his filmography.