In The Master, director Paul Thomas Anderson once again examines the gritty underbelly of Americana and discovers that mental conditions like alcoholism, sexual depravity and post-traumatic stress are probably NOT best treated by cultish religions that are based on past-life regression and whatever other chiasmus the cult leaders pull out of their nether orifices – proving you can’t heal crazy with crazy.
The term “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) has been used since the end of the Vietnam War, but it has only recently been taken seriously as a psychological diagnosis. In the aftermath of World War II, soldiers and sailors were merely given a token psych examination and then set loose in a society that was (and still is) ill-equipped to deal with the emotional & mental ailments incurred during the war.
The Master follows the post-war journey of a seriously damaged WWII sailor, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who didn’t have much going for him before the war, but returns with even less. He is alcoholic, sex-obsessed, aggressive, violent and not very intelligent. His only real talent in life is the ability to concoct extremely high proof spirits out of everyday household poisons and he drifts from job to job in what seems like an endless effort to completely unhinge his life.
Freddie eventually crosses paths with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an author and intellectual who has used his genius to create a cult following that calls him, “Master.” His organization and belief system is called “The Cause” and while Dodd can talk a good game regarding his “snake-oil” mental-healing methods, they have no basis in real science and he becomes volatile when questioned about his “process.”
Dodd sees the cave-man like Freddie as feeble-minded clay to be molded by his misguided methods and he takes on the challenge of curing the veteran with all manner of psycho-babble and regression techniques. The two men become close and The Master narrative almost becomes a twisted “buddy” story of sorts, in a manner somewhat similar to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
In fact, The Master’s writer/director, P.T. Anderson, has credited author John Steinbeck as an influence for his movie, as well as an obscure and controversial documentary film that famed director John Huston created for the U.S. government in 1945, called Let There Be Light, about the poor care and treatment of veterans with mental disorders. The Master has gotten some attention for its similarities to the L. Ron Hubbard story, but its creators say that the film has nothing to do with the Scientology church’s founder.
Like many of P.T. Anderson’s films (see Magnolia and There Will Be Blood), it’s hard to pigeon-hole exactly what The Master is all about. It’s a study of the fine line between genius and insanity, it addresses important issues regarding the struggles of war veterans and it looks closely at the genesis of religious beliefs and their appeal to those in desperate need of guidance. Anderson ingeniously paints each of these themes onto a canvas of American culture and history, in a way that very few filmmakers would be able to accomplish.
It is no exaggeration to say that the performances in The Master are incredible. Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers a magnificent portrayal of Dodd, who is both subtle and pompous at the same time – a man who knows he has the ability to bring intellectually weaker men to their knees by basically just baffling them with BS. Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife is also outstanding in a role that calls on her to be a manipulative nag masquerading as a nurturing matron. But the performance of Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell outshines everyone in this film’s stellar cast.
In the past few years, Phoenix has taken a public beating for apparently “falling off the deep-end” and has become better known for his off-screen eccentricities than his amazing acting accomplishments. As Freddie in The Master, this actor proves he is still at the very top of his game and one of our most courageous performers. He is so convincing in this mentally and physically demanding role that I left the theater genuinely concerned for his and his character’s well-being.
This film pulls the veil back on “good ol’ days” era America and shines light on some of our country’s post-World War II suffering and those who took advantage of it. With The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson has proven once again that he is a high-commander in the cult of filmmaking – and I’ll drink his kool-aid anytime. Grade: 9/10
Below is the controversial John Huston film, “Let There Be Light.” This controversial 1945 film was commissioned by the U.S. government, and then allegedly “suppressed” for 30 years. The film is noted as being one of the inspirations for P.T. Anderson’s, The Master.