-Lancaster Dodd, The Master
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) sprints across a foggy cabbage patch, breathing heavily as he’s being chased, in a gorgeous tracking shot that reminded me I was in the hands of a director who knows his way around a camera. It isn’t totally clear how Freddie, a WWII Navy Veteran, ended up there in the first place, or why he is running. But it doesn’t matter. He’s running from himself as much as that particular situation. Over and over in The Master, director Paul Thomas Anderson returns to a shot of the wake behind a ship at sea, informing us of this aimlessness of character and narrative that we are viewing.
Skulking around on a pier somewhere, Freddie hops aboard a boat, and wakes up the next morning after apparently blacking out from his own brand of hooch. It is on board this vessel that he meets Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a group loosely based on Scientology but only referred to in the movie as “The Cause.” Dodd has clearly taken interest in Freddie, and subjects Freddie to an intense round of “processing,” an exercise in which Freddie is forced to answer a series of extremely personal questions without blinking, designed to force the subject into an intense self-examination.
Not really a spiritual group as much as a metaphysically and philosophically based group, The Cause is nevertheless used by Anderson as a treatise on religion (which, surprisingly, is not depicted nearly as poorly as one would imagine). Anderson has treaded religious ground before. In There Will Be Blood, his previous film, Anderson uses an oil tycoon and a rural church minister to explore both the competing and similar interests of American capitalism and religion. In The Master, there is a similar struggle between competing forces: man’s individuality and instinctual nature, versus his need for control and purpose. Whereas in There Will Be Blood, the competing interests exploit each other to gain an advantage, here the two men both desperately want something that the other has.
It is this symbiotic give-and-take relationship upon which the film plants its flag and explores its themes. To that end, a quick word on the acting. This is, to me, the best all around acting in a film since...I don’t even know, probably Sideways in 2004 or even before that. Joaquin Phoenix is the best he’s ever been, giving a performance that is threatening, physical, and altogether unpredictable. Hoffman’s foil to Phoenix, however, is on a completely different level (for me). This is the epitome of a controlled performance; yet he is also charismatic, gregarious, and just mysterious enough to make you question his motives. This is a performance that will stick with me for a long time. Amy Adams gives a similarly restrained performance as the woman behind the man, and she probably won’t receive much Oscar love for it, but it deserves to be rewarded nonetheless.
The film never really explores what The Cause is really all about, and, although this is somewhat unsatisfying for the viewer, it is purposely left ambiguous. For how often do our own religions, “causes” which we are knowledgeable of, leave us grasping for answers at times? One who claims to fully understand the metaphysical or spiritual realms of the universe we live in is either truly ignorant, or a fraud (like Dodd?). This, then, is the irony in Dodd’s quote at the top and in many of his hollow methods and doctrines throughout the film.
Nevertheless, there are a couple of scenes in particular that do go into detail about The Cause, containing excellent exchanges dialogue and debate. If I have one criticism of the film, it is that it the script is much sharper when it is exploring ideas rather than characters. But it is not meant to be sharp; it is meant to be visceral and raw, which it succeeds in mightily. This struggle is summed up in what is the most revealing line of dialogue in the film, as Dodd tells Freddie “If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.” Dodd, in a way, is right—no one has ever lived without a master. Could it be, though, the only Master we ever truly serve is our own selves?