With The Master, P.T. Anderson continues his series of insightful and biting explorations of our struggle to find life and meaning. Its storytelling and filmcraft are outstanding, but even more to the Anderson’s credit, the film’s nuanced questions are woven deeply into the characters and their interactions throughout the story. Anderson makes us work to find the questions, sorting through the film’s characters and events to find reflections of ourselves, whether stark or dim, and what matters and what applies to our own lives.
The Master begins by introducing us to Freddie, a sailor at the end of World War II. Freddie is sexually frustrated and addicted to drink. If regular alcohol is not available, he’ll make an intoxicating drink from whatever he can find. After the war, he can’t hold a job. By chance, his running and drifting lead him to stow away on a large yacht just before it sets sail. On board is Lancaster Dodd, an author and leader of The Cause, a spiritual movement. Dodd takes an interest in Freddie, particularly because The Cause is meant to help disturbed people like Freddie. Although Freddie joins in with Dodd and follows in The Cause, it is not entirely clear whether The Cause can, in fact, help Freddie or whether Freddie will let it. Running time: 137 min.
Although the film is loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard and the early years of his Scientology movement, this is largely only a launching point. What matters more is that there is a body of beliefs and that people interact with and around the body of beliefs. The likeness to Scientology speaks to the reality of a continual rise of belief systems, even in modern times. The story’s modern day founding of The Cause lends a certain power to the film’s central relationship: When the founder himself handles a particularly hard case, it carries a certain authority. In a sense, we know that the case is being handled true to the principles of the belief system.
As Dodd handles Freddie’s case, an interwoven set of questions emerges. What is a compelling basis for a belief system? Is improved life experience a sound basis for judging the credibility of a belief system? What would it mean to say that a belief system “works”? What can be properly said of a belief system based on observing its founders and close followers? What role do believers have in their own healing? What importance and role does having a “master” play in our lives? Don’t let this heavy and abstract set of questions give you the wrong idea about the film. These are at the film’s core, but each of these questions is finds voice in the film only through the story's intense character elaboration and exploration.
From the film's opening, its filmcraft establishes a tone of serious reflection. We're watching a ship's wake, viewed off the ship's stern, but seeing only water and the swirling foam left by the ship's passing (the image recurs throughout the film). A series of disconnected vignettes, each with an edge to it, introduces us to Freddie and his re-entry into society after the war. We are drawn in, even as we are repulsed, to learn about this maladjusted man. As with Daniel Day Lewis in PT Anderson's There Will Be Blood, Joaquin Phoenix's compelling portrayal of Freddie is in equal parts actor and screenwriter. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams show up strongly as well. Any number of details in the film are interesting points for consideration as to possible meaning and significance, making the film question-rich (e.g., Dodd's wife is pregnant for part of the film — why?).
The Master is very much worth the time to see, but it's not for an audience seeking passive entertainment or spoon-fed reassurance. To take something positive away from the film, viewers (and reviewers) must engage with the film's exploration and ask where and why the film's title finds voice in the film's core question. The film itself is dark, but it reinforces an engaged viewer's pursuit of compelling life and light — or sets a foundation for it, if the viewer has yet to initiate such pursuit.
As a counterpoint to the film's core question, slavery to addiction is a central element of the film's exploration. This takes form and presence in the film in both substance and sexual addiction — as well as in more subtle forms of addiction. Sexual language and advances are common, including an extended portrayal of a fantasy involving full female nudity, one implied sexual scene, and one explicit sexual scene. These fit with and elaborate on Freddie's condition and the film's work, so they are not gratuitous, but they will be over the line for some viewers. Strong language is not infrequent and there is some mild violence.
- Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
- Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson
- Leads: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
- Cinematography: Mihai Malaimare Jr.
- Music: Jonny Greenwood
- Info on IMDb
- Reviews on Rottentomatoes (85%)
- Reviews on Metacritic (85 of 100)
- Review on Christianity Today Movies (3.5 of 4)
- Review on Filmwell
- Review by Los Angeles Times (Kenneth Turan)
- So-so review on Reelviews.net (3 of 4), notable because it comes from a reliable reviewer who seems to have missed the connection between the film's story and its title, thus didn't connect with the story.
- Negative review, notable as an example of the sort of rant one may go on if they miss the core of what a film is exploring, on Film School Rejects (grade: D)
- Buy The Master DVD on Amazon
- Go to the Netflix page
- Go to the Blockbuster page
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