Note to self: never take the little sister to indie films that happened to be R-rated.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was an interesting experiment in mind games, manipulation and preying on the weak. Poor Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), seduced by the liveliness and positivity dripping off of Master’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tongue.
Freddie Quell is a World War II war vet with quite a few screws loose, strolling around completely zonked off of homemade paint-thinner based liquid poison when he wakes up on Lancaster Dodd, or Master’s yacht for his daughter’s wedding. At first we see a skeptical Freddie making fun of the hypnosis being performed on members of seemingly high-society, but not too soon after Master finds an in with Freddie, using his liquid poison to drive Freddie deep into his thoughts in a way that appears as Master accessing some part of Freddie himself. Who knows, maybe he was the reason for Freddie’s discovery, on some level, but the film slowly unfolds Freddie’s constant struggle to commit to The Cause and his ultimate physical break from it when he takes off on a motorcycle during one of Master’s exercises.
We learn that Master’s followers start to doubt his credibility when he changes the fundamental principle of The Cause and is confronted by his new choice of words, changing the basic question from “Can you recall?” to “Can you imagine?”. He snaps at his follower and it is only then that viewers see something honest; Master really is just making it up as he goes along.
Several comparisons of this film to Scientology have been made and I will admit I went in expecting a docudrama about cults in the US, but it turns out that much of the similarities to Scientology did not actually make the final cut of the film [read more on Slate about L. Ron Hubbard and The Master's writer-director's inspiration here]. Instead, I found myself sympathizing with everyone, from Freddie, to Master, to Master’s wife (Amy Adams) and Master’s son (Jesse Plemons). Everyone has their own flaws, and while some are less apparent than others, one case reasonably relate to everyone stuck in this world. Master, who truly believes he is helping people, even if his method of “processing” is completely made up; his wife who questions his reasoning for investing so much time in Freddie; Freddie for letting his curiosity get the best of him temporarily (and also his boredom); and Master’s son for struggling to trust his father’s teaching wholeheartedly until the very end of the film.
There are so many story lines in this film that it seems an injustice to discuss them all, but I highly recommend it to viewers with an interest in incredible filmmaking, character development and storytelling. Anderson’s film may be criticized for uncomfortable sex scenes and disturbing interactions between its characters, but there is something beautiful in the director’s ability to paint a picture so complex in one of the most simplest of forms.