To say that Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hot mess would be an understatement: as a WWII veteran alcoholic with PTSD and various other social/psychological/sexual disorders, Quell exists as a problematic drifter on a downwards self-destructive spiral.
That is, until he drunkenly wanders into a philosophical order known as The Cause, whose charismatic leader Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), known to most as “Master,” seeks to “de-hypnotize” people into discovering their past selves, returning to perfection. Seeing Quell as an “animal,” Dodd takes him on as his protege, and attempts to civilize this savage beast.
So far this has probably been the most difficult film for me to break down so I’ll give it my best. Rather than being merely a portrait piece in the vein of There Will Be Blood, The Master is something more profound and in a sense, bizarre – ultimately showcasing the many facets of human nature through different lenses, so to speak. First we are given Freddie Quell, an animal, who is frankly unlikeable and fairly unsympathetic.
When he meets Dodd he has found a mentor, someone who believes in his potential, as presented as an intellectual god of sorts. Dodd doesn’t believe that man is an animal, and refers to Freddie as such – also when they meet, Dodd says “Above all, I am a man.” However as the film progresses we find that Dodd is almost just as short tempered and vile as Freddie.
Paul Thomas Anderson gives us this account of utter humanism with no apology. But you also have to take into consideration that this is a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, so it’s a given that there’s going to be some long scenes with awkward dialogue, but nothing’s totally forced. Crude, relentless and wonderful, The Master is a film that is built to make you think – the rest is up to your imagination.
Final Grade: A