The Master 12/09/27 3:16
In an opening section with a disjointed style matching the mind of its protagonist, we observe one Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, a sailor in the Pacific at the end of World War II, mutely and clumsily trying to fit in with the men around him. Freddie has a peculiar hunched posture, what appears to be a hair lip, and talks out of the left side of his face, the right side frozen by some untold previous calamity. His behavior is ruled by two addictions, alcohol and sex. The first he pursues by concocting strong, potentially lethal potions, which include such ingredients as paint thinner and Lysol. The second he enjoys when he can get it, with a crude and childlike sense of pleasure. A series of VA interviews at his discharge reveal that the navy thinks he might be insane, but he is let loose into society nevertheless, and his erratic and sometimes violent behavior takes him from being a department store photographer to a farm worker, to a tramp on the run. In 1950, at his lowest point, he stows away on a yacht that turns out be helmed by Lancaster Dodd, an author and self-proclaimed spiritual master played superbly by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Dodd, surrounded by devoted followers, including his sweet-voiced and iron-willed wife, played by Amy Adams, has elements that Anderson has clearly borrowed from L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, including the attempt to recall past trauma and past lives as a method of present release. This gives the film a solid period background, but it's not really about Scientology. Instead it chronicles an historical moment when Americans, with no more frontier to conquer, began to try conquering their inner demons. It's also about the shadow that accompanies the dramatic light of a spiritual movement. Dodd sees Freddie as a challenge—can this unthinking creature be turned into a model for The Cause? With a characteristic mixture of defiance and hope, Freddie tries to be a good follower, and in the process becomes a blind fanatic with a habit of physically attacking anyone who dares to criticize "the master."
Phoenix's performance is astonishing. He plays Freddie like a tight bundle of repressed desire, the kind of bizarre troublemaker one would try to avoid in real life, or maybe even hate, but strangely—and I think this is one of Anderson's brilliant insights—with all his inarticulate groping intensity, he seems to have more integrity than all the more sophisticated cult followers, who simply tuck away their misgivings where they can't interfere.
Anderson's direction of his own script is impeccable. His style implicates the audience, never allowing us to feel superior to these characters, even while we find ourselves chuckling at the story's painful irony. The Master is a vivid and incredibly complex work of art.