I can’t pretend to understand or appreciate The Master fully. What comes through immediately in viewing the film, however, is that it is a film of substance. It is unmistakable – Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction is, as always, completely assured, confident. Philip Seymour Hoffman is convincing without compare. All of this is to be expected by now, however. It is Joaquin Phoenix that steals the show, submerging himself completely in a character that is brimming with aggression and animalistic impulse.
In time of peace the character of former soldier Freddie Quell is almost pathetic, boozing unstoppably, leaving a trail of drunken disorientation behind him. In the aftermath of one of his stunts, he seeks refuge on the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a vaguely religious, somewhat psychologically inclined society, and the focus of a genuine cult of personality. The others on the boat, mostly friends and family of the titular Master, follow him unquestioningly and the movie makes no attempts to prove the legitimacy of this regime to us. Instead, in an early scene, the strength of the hypnosis-like technique employed by Hoffman’s character, and perhaps even more significantly, Freddie’s eagerness for the “processing”, as it’s called, is put on display. By placing the subject under suddenly stressful conditions, the Master forces them to live out a sort of psycho-drama, whether by recalling genuine memories or inviting them to create, and by repetition imprint newly created ones, which are claimed to be recollections of one’s past lives. This, which is referred to by believers of “the Cause” as awakening, but to anyone outside of the movement looks suspiciously like psychological manipulation and trickery, is fiercely believed and defended by the members of the group. In a significant scene, Mr. Dodd is called upon to defend his beliefs, but while claiming to respect opposition and skepticism, ends up shouting down and cursing at his opponent. The brutality of the attack on the person of the sceptic is then promptly followed up by a physical attack against them committed by Freddie. While Freddie is chastised for the actions by the Master, one cannot escape the feeling that neither have much regard or patience for the views of others.
The film is focused heavily on the relationship between two men. Their differences, as it becomes apparent, are far more surface-level than either would like to admit. Instead, the Master’s poise and sophistication are hiding a fairly savage nature. Both men enjoy wrestling each other, speeding on a motorcycle, drinking vile alcoholic potions which Freddie brews, and laughing, despite Mr. Dodd’s claims that the activities are entirely animalistic in nature. If any true hypocrisy could be said to be exposed in the film, it is that, instead of the occasionally obvious fiction of some of the Master’s other claims. At his core, the character strives for control over others, and simultaneous freedom from other’s dominion. Freddie is much the same, although he does not strive for the centre of attention as readily. In turn, he is chastised by his friend for seeking the freedom he craves, being told that the impulses that occasionally take him to violence are imprints, perhaps from aliens from another world, and emotional scars from previous lives. While the subsequent training he is put through is supposedly meant to free him from this, what it does in reality is systematically break down his ego to the point of altering his sense of reality completely.
Another figure behind all of this is Amy Adams’s character, the Master’s current wife. She is as firm with her husband as she is to anyone else, and clearly has a very good understanding of the manipulative techniques her husband uses, to the point where she employs the same methods to get her husband to quit drinking. As the two men become more inseparable, she pushes for Freddie’s rejection from the community – but she does so subtly, not letting her true intentions and feelings be known. Her quiet control over her surroundings is surpassed only by her occasional insecurity in view of anything that might threaten her position, which includes Freddie.
The true meaning of the film shows itself in the final two scenes. One, where the Master almost breaks down in expectation of their final separation, showing just how much he truly cares for his protegé, despite the imminent rejection of the same man. The other shows the true nature of the power dynamic of the relationship Lancaster Dodd forges with his followers, in particular with Freddie. Freddie employs the same technique that was used on him on another, but the setting and context of the scene shows the true effect it’s had on him, as well as potentially the true intentions of the head games on display, albeit perhaps not literally.
The acting on display in the film is, across the board, transformative. One never gets the sense of watching actors perform, but instead of watching people, interesting, occasionally emotionally or physically twisted characters interact. As stated before, Joaquin Phoenix’s character is in that respect the most interesting, in that it is the character that requires the actor to reach the most, that is the furthest away from, what one assumes, is likely a well-adjusted person. The psychological scarring that the character begins with is obvious, and it is difficult to decide if the subsequent conditioning he undergoes makes him better, somewhat more in charge of himself, or merely sneakier, more dangerous.
A full analysis of the film would require many more viewings, and more space than can be dedicated here. However, there is little doubt that of the films being shown in Kino Pavasaris this year, this will be one that will make an impact and be remembered in film history. The relationships and meaning of the various themes in the movie are not easily categorized and defined, but that should not be confused with a lack of meaning. The value of the film is that, much like life, it contains no heroes, no clear denouncement of anything on display, merely honest portrayal.