The Master

Since his first feature, Hard Eight, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has been building a solid filmography which culminated with the uncompromising oil epic There Will Be Blood. Mr. Anderson has, throughout the years, developed his own narrative and thematic signature, with a taste for charismatic and damaged characters often used as threads to make us explore particular universes or eras.

In The Master, the filmmaker this time tackles the relationship between Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a role based on Scientology founder Ron Hubbard) and one of his followers, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix).  Right from the beginning, Freddie is portrayed as a loose cannon wandering through life as it’s a big party. He’s like a kid with no boundaries and no goals until he meets Lancaster who takes him under his helm.

The relationship linking the two men can look strange at first as they have nothing in common, except for a risky taste for Freddie’s homemade booze. While it’s clear that Lancaster wants to test his theories while attempting to cure Freddie’s mental health, there is way more to this. Some critics have complained that their bound doesn’t make any sense but they are missing the point. Freddie is like a straw dog getting adopted by a master. He is wild, unpredictable, dangerous but also extremely loyal, as the scene where he defends Lancaster against cops or opponents can attest. He also embodies a freedom that Lancaster can’t afford, being prisoner of the persona he created.  In the end, when Freddie comes back, like a prodigal son, it becomes clear that there is love between the two men. Whether it’s a filial or homosexual feeling, it’s not sure but it seems to me that there are two opposite and inseparable halves, complementary alter-egos.

If the character study is the centerpiece of this work, it is also used as a thread to tackle another more controversial and important theme in the background and I’m of course talking about religions, cults and more particularly scientology.  Modeled on Hubbard, Lancaster introduces himself to both Freddie and the audience as a self-proclaimed writer, journalist, scientist, etc  … which to most individuals would sound pretty suspicious. Projecting great charisma and a larger-than-life presence, he is surrounded by followers who seem to blindly believe in all his philosophical and scientific theories. While the filmmaker never tries to uncover the truth about him, he still offers a few subtle hints throughout the film: whenever his theories are questioned, whether it’s by a detractor or one of his followers, his attitude quickly turns into rage, rather than offering constructive answers. Most importantly, his son at some point acknowledges that he is making up everything as he goes, which brings us to the most important question which is if he is delusional or simply a fraud. This question never gets answered and it’s up to the audience to make up their mind. Despite the fact that he truly seems to be wanting to help others – and might in some cases succeeds – what is clear is that he is a charlatan.

While those kinds of intellectually-driven movies usually suffer from modest production values, The Master has it all, supporting its message with a gorgeous cinematograpy, precise direction, a strong soundtrack by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and of course Joaquin Phoenix’s vicious, haunting performance (which should put back into place once for all those who didn’t value his “stunt work” in I’m Still Here).

As to whether The Master deserves all this praise – dozens of talentless journalists attempting to outdo each other with the catchiest superlatives  – there is a fine line between good and greatness and if I believe this is a very strong work, this isn’t Mr. Anderson’s best, which I believe is still the vibrant There Will Be Blood. Unlike some critics, I wasn’t bothered that this film doesn’t provide any positive narrative conclusion or answer for its characters – bringing the audience from point A to point B seems to be prerogative only in Hollywood’s formulaic productions – but I think its success is due to the fact that American spectators and journalists are not used to these types of cerebral films, which are however a staple in Europe. Go to international film festivals and you will find quite a few movies of similar caliber; what makes the difference is that they are just not as glamorous as The Master,which is one the rare works with both strong content and vehicle.

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson – Actors: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman – Running Time: 2:17 – Year: 2012 – Country: USA

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Fred Thom

Fred Thom

Editor-in-Chief/Founder/Film Critic at Plume Noire
The founder and editor-in-chief of Plume Noire, Fred Thom covers film festivals and writes movie reviews. He was born in Marseilles, France and is now living in Los Angeles, California.