Movie Review: The Master

By Matthew Huntley

September 20, 2012

Tell Colin Firth that *I* give the king's speeches around here.

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master plays like a great American novel, with deeply rooted themes of friendship, betrayal, cynicism and the search for truth, which collectively leave an indelible mark on your mind. I have not seen a film this layered or complex in a long time; it left me pondering what was real, what was artificial and what I should make of the characters’ behavior. This is the type of film viewers of all kinds can (and will) mull over to the point of frustration since it refuses to provide easy or definite answers. For that and other reasons, it’s sometimes a challenge to get through, but one thing is certain: it’s remarkably well made.

If William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is the romantic story of World War II soldiers returning home to an America that no longer suits them, then The Master is its colder, darker and more misanthropic brother (and The Best Years had its own share of darkness). Anderson’s film is also about the struggles of a scarred soldier trying to find a place and himself after the Second World War, but it goes further into his psychosis and refuses to stay within the confines of a traditional narrative.

When it opens, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a navy man and social outcast, is enjoying his R&R on a beach just after V-J Day. We suppose Freddie is celebrating the United States’ victory by pouring alcohol into a coconut and guzzling it alone, but we soon realize he’d be doing this anyway. Freddie functions by drinking and will go to any means necessary to feed his addiction - if you can even call it an addiction. For Freddie, making and drinking alcohol has become a way of life. It’s obvious he acquired a taste for alcohol a long time ago and it’s been his master ever since. He doesn’t even put up a fight.


On the beach, Freddie’s peers build a sand woman, which Freddie pretends to have intercourse with. At first, he makes everybody laugh, but as he continues, he begins to draw baffled looks, which, for Freddie, is typical. He’s a troubled, strange and volatile man with a dark sense of humor, ruled by impulse and repressed anger. This partly explains why when he returns to America, he can’t hold a job, although no matter where he finds himself, he always manages, rather effortlessly, to find the ingredients - any ingredients - to make a drink.

One night, after fleeing his latest job as a cabbage picker when his homemade moonshine nearly kills a farmhand, Freddie happens upon the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), himself a former navy man. Freddie awakens the next morning and is unaware of his raucous behavior the night before. But Dodd takes an immediate liking to him, not to mention the special “potion” Freddie concocted. In fact, Dodd agrees to overlook Freddie as a stowaway if he makes more of it and even invites him to stay for his daughter’s wedding.

We come to learn Dodd is not just some ordinary tycoon, but the wizard behind a religious organization called The Cause, which claims that humans can recall memories from their past lives - as far back as “trillions of years ago” - and have the inherent mental power to cure themselves of diseases such as leukemia. Dodd thinks Freddie would make a perfect case study for his second book and subjects him to a series of exercises, including one where he tests Freddie’s patience and endurance by having him sit across from Dodd’s new son-in-law (Rami Malek), who berates Freddie’s beloved ex-girlfriend. Dodd is allegedly trying to free Freddie’s mind so it can withstand any and all external conflicts.

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