Since the fall of 2012 I’ve heard people talk so excited about The Master. From various critics, bloggers and other film enthusiasts I heard praises of the acting, the directing, the story, the style, everything. Naturally, my expectations were very high.
In The Master, Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a wandering Navy veteran. He seems to have no aptitude or talents other than women, boozing and making liquor out of household chemicals. His brew is potent, dangerous and causes him to run from one job to the next. That is, until he becomes a stowaway on a yacht with most unusual passengers.
After his presence is discovered on the ship, he is brought before the group’s leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Rather than punish Freddie, Dodd takes special interest in him, Dodd seems intrigued and inspired by him. After an intense scene where Dodd grills Freddie with questions, some very personal, we learn that he is the leader of a movement simply called The Cause.
Most of the details about The Cause are left very vague other than they believe in past lives and reaching back in your mind to them to help find inner peace. It looks like a cult, sounds like a cult, moves like a cult and Dodd is the perfect embodiment of the charismatic cult leader. And Freddie is a simple enough man to stay with Dodd after the ship has reached shore.
For a while, it’s hard to tell if Freddie is believing in The Cause or just doesn’t have anything better to do. He follows whatever Dodd and his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams) say like an overgrown child. In his own manner, Freddie defends them in front of those who question The Cause, passes out flyers on the street, even goes to jail with Dodd. Later in the film, it seems Dodd and his followers try to brainwash Freddie. It’s a long and slow process that can wear on the viewer much like it does Freddie.
Scenes between Hoffman and Phoenix are intense and powerful in many different ways, many different times throughout the film. It’s obvious Dodd is a more intelligent and sophisticated man, using those skills to charm Freddie and keep him at his side. Nearly the opposite, Freddie is destructive, wild and unpredictable like an animal. While these opposites create natural friction, it’s amazing how well they fit together as well. My favorite scenes were Freddie’s first interview where he is told not to blink and the jail cell scene, a perfectly constructed long, still shot.
What bothers me about this film is that this Cause, cult, movement, whatever is the central idea, yet nearly everything about it is hardly addressed. What does one gain when joining? What does it take to join? Does Dodd believe he’s a genuine prophet or looking to make money? This film feels like it has so much it meant to say, but got so focused on the characters, it forgot to get the words out, or even point us in the right direction.
The Master is a quietly intense and captivating film with great actors doing great acting. It’s pretty great. However, I felt that I had the bar set to high and was a little disappointed that I was not completely blown away. It’s the sort of story that feels right to come from Paul Thomas Anderson, who also directed There Will Be Blood. The Master is coldly captivating and beautifully filmed, yet it leaves me trying to connect dots and make sense of things that are left way too vague.
“What a day. We fought against the day and we won. We won.”