Since its premiere early this month at the Toronto International Film Festival, much of what’s been written about P.T. Anderson’s The Master has focused on the film’s complexity as well as the viewer’s inability to mine all it has to offer in a single viewing. This comes as no surprise as the director’s work is often narratively dense and thematically daring, yet what I think is really causing this reaction is the structure of the movie itself. At times meandering, at others galvanizing and often just plain odd, The Master comes to represent its main characters, two troubled souls who are hardly whole themselves.
To describe the plot of the film is a superfluous exercise as it is a series of experiences strung together to form the loosest of narratives. The film opens on an island in the Pacific toward the end of World War II. Though we get no specifics, it’s obvious that seaman Freddie Quell (an unforgettable Joaquin Phoenix) has undergone some sort of severe psychological trauma. Whether this occurred during combat or in his personal life is no matter. The damage is done. He has very little impulse control, is abnormally fixated on sex and tries to dull his pain with his homemade alcohol-based concoctions, which could include anything from paint thinner to Lysol. As he wanders from one postwar job to the next, fate literally steers him toward Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-made man who is the head of a radical pseudo-religious movement he’s dubbed “The Cause.” Obviously, a charlatan and fraud, he’s still been able to amass a loyal following that hangs on his every word and eagerly waits whatever new edict he’s willing to share about the path they have dedicated their lives to.
Much has been made about Dodd having been modeled after L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. While Anderson is vague on the actual details of “The Cause,” there’s no doubt there are similarities to be drawn as each focuses on past life experiences as well as their followers becoming the truest form of themselves. However, skewering this controversial movement is not the director’s objective here, as he’ s more concerned with focusing on the fractured people who are drawn to zealots such as Dodd. Adrift himself, he’s concocted a mythology that speaks to those who feel and see themselves as being outside the norm, taking advantage of their feelings of alienation and drawing them in, not for financial gain, but to feed his own ego. It’s a frightening and all-too real occurrence. The disenfranchised crave a sense of belonging and when they are brought together for less than noble means, the result is tragic.
Even if the film may leave some scratching their heads as to its theme, there’s no denying that Phoenix and Hoffman give unforgettable performances. In a sense, each is a different part of the same person. If Dodd is the Ego, all bluff and bluster, impervious to criticism and acting only in his own self-interest, then Quell is the Id, acting impulsively in every situation, whether it is with lust, violence or self-abuse. These two fractured men make up a damaged whole, going through life in fits and starts, which is reflected by the film’s structure, and only finding a sense of peace that’s ultimately an illusion. From its title to the delusions its characters embrace, The Master is a noble and challenging film rife with ironies, as well as unanswered questions about our true purpose, the nature of faith, the pitfalls of blind trust and the dark side of the human soul.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at email@example.com.