The rippling current of a crystal blue sea—a shot that opens and reappears throughout Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master—sets the tone for the film, as it sweeps its characters through the tides of spiritual movement. The force of nature rushing through the film is not "The Cause"—a cult reminiscent of Scientology (though the writer-director has denied that was his intention) creeping through the United States in the mid 20th century. It is the dynamic, charismatic energy of Lancaster Dodd, played by the irrepressible Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is known simply as "master" for most of the film.
The Master follows the journey of the student: a hunched, hollowed World War II Navy veteran named Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Freddie is struggling to adjust to the "responsibilities of peacetime," unceasingly nursing a dangerous concoction of booze and paint thinner as he gropes his way through job and woman alike. After his potent brew appears to have poisoned a man, Freddie stumbles, literally, onto a departing vessel carrying the wedding party of a young bride and her father's posse of believers.
When Freddie wakes, not sure where he is or how he got there, he meets the "master"—ruddy and rotund—who informs Freddie that he has "wandered from the proper path." Explaining himself, Lancaster knocks off the typical list of new age-y occupations—writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher—before concluding, "I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man…just like you."
From their first meeting, Freddie is fixated—like a ray of sunshine, Lancaster's rhetoric breaks through the cloud of booze and manic depression that hovers over Freddie.
Freddie is presented the philosophy of the "The Cause," a book written by Lancaster. The master explains the methodology of his exercises, which he says cure physical ailments by allowing practitioners to reach beyond to their past lives and do away with "negative impulses. "Man is not an animal," the master lectures. But Freddie is just that: "a silly animal", "a naughty boy" Lancaster calls him, almost endearingly, as Freddie falters to find the inner peace The Cause's other believers appeared to have diligently embraced.
Freddie embeds himself in the movement—at one point, he chases down and assaults a party-goer who questions The Cause and its leader. But it is unclear whether it is the philosophy that has taken hold of Freddie, or the persona of its propagator. With the publication of Lancaster's second book (subtitled "A Gift to Homo Sapiens") and the formation of the "Congress of the Cause," some of Lancaster's followers begin to question the movement's path. Freddie can't verbally defend his beliefs in his master's teachings, so he resorts to outbursts of violence to protect Lancaster's honor, behavior Lancaster seems to simultaneously condemn and encourage as he dubs Freddie his "little soldier."
It s also unclear exactly what draws Lancaster to Freddie—who despite Lanacaster's best attempts at civilizing, still lapses into his brute animal mentality. "You are the bravest boy I've ever met," Lancaster tells Freddie. But does he mean it? Or is this a line he tells everyone to bring them in?
It is the master's family, led by his steadfast wife, Peggy—played by a solid Amy Adams—who plead with Lancaster to cut the constantly-drunk, sometimes-violent Freddie loose. Though Peggy often hides behind her puffy bun and frumpy dress, she takes a stand when she feels threatened by her husband and Freddie's mutual fascination with one another, and steps in to decide Freddie's ultimate role in The Cause.
Anderson invokes bright, crisp cinematography (mesmerizing given the film's dark themes), a suspenseful score infused with eccentricities of mid-century jazz and standards, and a chilling depiction of the magnetic aura of cults—the film itself casting a spell until the its disenchanting conclusion.
Just as the substance of The Cause underneath its master's style is never truly revealed, neither is the substance of Freddie and Lancaster's relationship. The Master never fully explains the connection between Lancaster and his servant, but thanks to the gripping performances of Hoffman and Phoenix, their connection goes unchallenged as it propels the film forward. Does Freddie believe in The Cause, or just the saving grace of its leader? Does Lancaster identify something worth saving in Freddie? Or does he just see Freddie as another easily manipulated minion? The Master doesn't answer its most troubling questions—which just may be its ultimate point.
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