Summary: It’s themes don’t resonate as clearly as those in his earlier film ‘Magnolia’, but there’s still the wonderment of watching Paul create this complex audio-visual experience and the brilliant cast of course which makes this a satisfying experience
Lancaster Dodd, who is addressed as ‘The Master’ by the followers of ‘The Cause’, a philosophical sect led by him does not know the ultimate secret to all world problems himself. He does seem to have a vague idea about it, but his understanding seems garbled and vacillating; in one scene, he erupts at one of his followers for questioning a change he makes in his newly published book. He seems to get closer and closer to his answers while ‘curing’ Freddie Quell, a World War II veteran who is sex obsessed and suffers from alcoholism and aggression. Freddie almost seems like Dodd’s alter ego who seems to display the feelings that Dodd restrains from, so while Dodd scolds Freddie whenever he displaces his anger towards those who criticize Dodd’s beliefs, I do think a part of him wants to do exactly that but cannot for the obvious reason that it would tarnish his reputation. So when Dodd says to his family in one scene that it is The Cause that needs Freddie more than Freddie needing The Cause, he implicitly means that it is he himself who needs Freddie.
Paul Thomas Anderson, the director and writer of 2012s multiple Oscar nominated ‘The Master’ does not know about Dodd The Master’s ultimate goal either. So there’s not a single moment in the movie where the Master reveals his ultimate purpose of curing Freddie; instead what Anderson tries to create is this little world of ‘The Cause’ which gains momentum right after the Second World War, and tries to create another form of escapism/diversion (whichever seems more suitable) from the real world. For Dodd, to get a person like Freddie is like jackpot because he’s a man who’s just escaped war and does not have a proper ground for himself – to push him back to reality all of a sudden is traumatic for a guy like him. So he’s the right person who truly needs The Cause’s help, not those people who believe the Cause can do miracles like curing leukemia by recalling past lives. As Dodd proceeds to help Freddie, there is a sense of disillusionment in Dodd and his belief that he can cure everything. I felt Anderson was trying to convey this in his film, but themes and symbolisms don’t connect with us easily as they did in his earlier film ‘Magnolia’ or the brilliant Jason Reitman movie ‘Up in the Air’. You’ll have to break your head to find these meanings, and so the reaction given by late critic Roger Ebert “But what is the film trying to communicate?” is expected and justified.
I personally think that this film will be easier to grasp by those who’ve been a part of some religious or philosophical group/cult in their lives. I had a short stint with an organization myself, and I can say that Paul clearly has done his research about the way such organizations work or the things that people experience there. People who want to wash off their past deeds or are haunted by some past memory usually are easily enamored when they find a temporary relief to their pains; Freddie’s grief of leaving his love Doris for war is placated during his first session with Dodd. Such people soon find themselves closely associated with the leader and during the period learning about the leader’s own vulnerabilities; Freddie defends Dodd against anyone who’s critical about him, including beating up a skeptic, fighting the police who come to arrest Dodd, and later assaulting Dodd’s publisher. And one fine day, they are ready to leave because they’ve got what they wanted and need no more.
Paul also casts a wonderful ensemble who builds up complex characters: Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Dodd, a highly ambitious man with noble intentions, in a way that evokes empathy towards his vision despite not believing some of the ‘curing methods’ that he practices. Joaquin Phoenix gives Freddie a complex characterization, which includes narrow eyes, a hunched back and a bony appearance. When he’s dirty, he’s as dirty as one can get, when he’s angry, he’s a raging animal you’d want to stay away from and when he’s vulnerable, he tears at your heart. Amy Adams plays Peggy, Dodd’s strong, supportive and pregnant wife the way you’d expect Amy Adams to play her, but yes her face conveys a lot in some of the scenes, like the one where her character looks concernedly at a drunken Freddie from the corner as others are singing and dancing.
But the best thing about The Master is the brilliantly complex audio visual orchestra created by Paul: he’s such an expert at blending onscreen, off-screen sounds and background score with image, flashbacks, dreams that this movie is a must-see for all filmmakers and enthusiasts. Even with the sheer beauty of the image, the colors and the sounds, its themes may not resonate the same way for everyone, so it’s either ‘You follow them or you don’t’.
- Review: The Master (2012) (thefilmoracle.wordpress.com)
- Less than Masterful: The Great Disappointment that is The Master (sarahrulu.wordpress.com)
- The Master (smallscreenreviews.com)
- Scientology Aside, ‘The Master’s” Meaning is Clear (Short Ends and Leader) (popmatters.com)
- The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson (hkauteur.wordpress.com)
- “THE MASTER” (2012) Review (rosiepowell2000.typepad.com)
- ‘The Master’ Is a Study in Displacement (Review) (popmatters.com)
- The Master (12A) | Close-Up Film DVD Review (close-upfilm.com)
- ‘Extreme’ characters fuel the plot of ‘The Master’ (japantimes.co.jp)