The Master (2012)

Some writing needs research and some just flows from the keyboard.

Reviewing writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest movie, The Master (2012) required input from others and keys unlocked some of its mysteries and meaning after reading two published interviews.

In post-World War II America, a shiftless former seaman, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) happens upon a quasi-religious sect, led by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the master of the title.


Freddie is a disturbed man, scarily portrayed by Phoenix in a role so different from impersonating Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005) he shows what good acting is all about – being someone entirely different from your own persona. 

Phoenix adopts a twisted form, especially in his jerky gait, that mimics his twisted mind. The poor man drinks anything remotely tasting of alcohol and sees everything like an animal. His attitude to sex and social mores is completely off the radar of suburban USA, the fertile breeding ground where Master and his coterie, The Cause, recruit members.

How Dodd and Quell interact is the pivotal part of this movie which becomes something of a love story between two men of vastly different thoughts and ideas.

Is Master in love with Freddie? Does he see him as a surrogate son? Is he disbelieving that his superior mind cannot convince a mind as apparently empty as Freddie’s from becoming committed to The Cause? Can he see in Freddie’s freedom, unhappy though his life appears, something he yearns for because he has created this movement which he has trouble explaining to doubters in verbal debate? 

Does he feel trapped by his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who appears like Hilary Clinton or Cherie Blair to be the driving force behind the man in power, and whose fanaticism is reflected in her lines: “The only way to defend ourselves is to attack’“and “This is something you do for a billion years or not at all?”  

These questions can only be answered personally as each viewer will see The Master differently, part of its charm and complexity.

Anderson began by researching Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and other movements that emerged after WWII when Americans began looking for something; a meaning they had perhaps not previously considered having lived for nearly two decades through depression and war.

Their country was about to explode in prosperity and it is no coincidence that the film is set in the approach to and in the early 1950s when Americans found some individual identity and began to influence the world in a way no culture had done for centuries.

However, Anderson admits to making The Master on instinct and has Dodd’s son let the cat from the bag when he explains Master to Freddie with: “He is making all this up as he goes along…you don’t see that?”

Producer JoAnne Sellar is equally frank about Anderson’s creation: “His creation of The Cause may have been inspired by his research, but the story took him entirely in another direction from there.”

The Master is a hard film to enjoy but it is a good story with so many threads leading into strange directions it cannot be discounted as less than a good film.


Score: 3.5

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