A transcendent image of a glassy blue and roiling sea appears before us three times during Paul Thomas Anderson's latest and most-challenging picture, The Master. On each occasion, it offers to swallow us whole, dragging us into its chaos, perhaps joining our turbidity with its own swirling, constantly shifting mass. This vision ends up painting a perfect analogue for the film's two chief characters, both of which have the potential for casting themselves wildly into the abyss, driven by something dark at the center of their being.
Forget what you've heard: The Master isn't (necessarily) about Scientology. Yes, the character of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) absolutely takes its inspiration from the figure of L. Ron Hubbard and there are many similarities between Hubbard's organization and Dodd's The Cause scattered throughout the film.
The real story being told here is about the uneasy connection formed between an alcoholic drifter named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Hoffman's Dodd. Without these two halves of the same soul, there is no film, something which Anderson goes to great lengths to ensure, fragmenting and suppressing most every nod to conventional or sustained storytelling in order to reduce the film down to a basic stew comprised of these men, their similarities, and the different directions in which they are headed.
The aptly named Quell is a World War II naval veteran cast adrift after his experiences in the war. He's drinking too much (concocting potions out of fuel, paint thinner, or whatever he can lay his hands upon) and running from the consequences of having poisoned a man with his home brewed liquor; he tells Dodd that you have to know how to "drink it smart." The truth is that Freddie is recklessly careening through life when he drunkenly stumbles onto a seagoing vessel containing Dodd, his wife (Amy Adams) and family, and a boatload of his followers.
Upon regaining consciousness, Freddie becomes drawn into Dodd's orbit, undergoing the questionable manipulations of his "screenings," and becoming an unpredictable and volatile protector against anyone who dares to defy the older man's quasi-religious rhetoric. There's little indication that Freddie believes or even understands what The Cause stands for and so, since it is mostly through his eyes which we view the film, neither do we. In fact, if the film passes judgment at all on the charismatic Dodd's belief system, it's when his son Val (Jesse Plemons) asks if Freddie can see that his father is "making it all up as he goes along," an accusation that Freddie later lays at Dodd's doorstep.
For reasons not entirely pronounced by the film, Dodd takes this reckless heap of a man, blind animal-like behaviors and all, under his wing, trying to cure him while simultaneously delighting in some of Freddie's "magic potions;" a weakness that Dodd's wife discourages with a shockingly commanding sexual act.
It's within this contradiction that we're able to locate the duality expressed by these two characters; Dodd could clearly inhabit Freddie's position in life and jealously guards this truth compounded with the basic deception at the core of his trade, while Freddie hopelessly attempts to mask his disease and pain-even if it's plainly apparent to all who look upon him-expecting that no one should be able to question his path. There's a shared essence of self-determination binding these men; as before, two halves of the same soul.
Where many viewers will have difficulty is with the pacing of the piece, as well as Anderson's resolve to allow the performances to trump the plotting of his film. At nearly 2 1/2 hours long, The Master contains about an hour's worth of focused, conventional storytelling. During those moments explored in Boogie Nights, since both films share observations on small sects performing transgressive social experiments way outside the mainstream. But visually and, especially, in terms of its atmospherics, The Master is very much in tune with P.T.A.'s There Will Be Blood, albeit a far less immediate and darkly charming version of that 2007 piece.
This is an incredibly well made, slowly drawn out film that will likely bloom further on subsequent viewings. One suspects that the experience will benefit the second time around, much as Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life did, from being freed of the burden of trying to harmonize what's onscreen into an easily digestible story. For now, though, the lack of moorage within the tale speaks volumes about the principal characters in this drama, articulating just how lost they are in their own private whirlwinds.
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