On DVD/Blu-ray – Review: The Master (2012)
by NIR SHALEV
Is it possible to have a screenplay that’s entirely themes and character development rather than plot progression and a clear purpose? Yes, because that describes The Master.
Here is a film that’s about people, what they do in life, how they perceive life (and past lives), and how they treat one another. The protagonist is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix); he is a WWII veteran who returns home with with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). After a battery of seemingly meaningless psychological exams he is returned to civilian life and finds work wherever he can. One day he invites himself aboard a yacht that belongs to one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is a rich man whose daughter is to be married on that yacht the following morning. Freddie impresses Dodd with his astounding ability to concoct alcoholic beverages out of, literally, anything and is invited to stay. He then follows Dodd to his home, meets the rest of his family, and is hired to perform several jobs for him.
Dodd had created a quasi-religion known as The Cause; it’s more of a cult because Dodd isn’t concern with facts but rather preaches a gospel that’s basically entirely made up and cannot be proved. Its findings simply are and his gospel is truth. Those who are familiar with Scientology would recognize the similarities between it and The Cause, and note that Dodd is very similar in many ways, to L. Ron Hubbard. That is not accidental. However, the film isn’t about Dodd’s cult nor is it about The Cause and what it means. They are simply a part of the overall world in which the film exists. The Cause is what Dodd does for a living, writing books about past lives that go back some trillions of years (yes, trillions), and how recalling them can help us to heal ourselves in the future.
We are witnesses to The Cause through the eyes of Freddie. Seemingly random tests are performed on others; the subjects generally try to recall past lives. Some tests are also performed on Freddie. He doesn’t understand the purpose of the tests, he doesn’t understand what The Cause is all about, and the audience too is befuddled as to what is actually happening. But one thing’s for sure: Dodd and his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams) know exactly what they’re doing and the actors convey that in spades. The more abstract the happenings in the film the more fascinating the film becomes.
Now, what’s truly unique about the character of Freddie is that he’s essentially a dog. He travels around from one random place to another, works where he can and does what’s expected of him, and almost always acts erratically, sometimes violently, at one point and is kicked out into the streets again. He’s homeless and aimless, but even when he finds Dodd and The Cause he doesn’t quite feel at home. He simply acts the part of a curious man and does what he’s told. He continues to concoct alcoholic beverages from scratch, drinks at every opportunity, and eyes women like a sex-crazed Neanderthal.
Dodd is very similar to Freddie in many ways, yet uses Freddie as a test subject for two reasons: 1) to misdirect who he really is by focusing his tests on Freddie and, hopefully, becoming a better if not different person through the various tests’ conclusions; and 2) his family believes that Freddie might be a spy. For whom? No one knows. But it’s fascinating to watch Freddie, like a dog, do what he’s told to simply because it’s in his nature.
There are many moments in the film where Freddie pointlessly paces to and fro only to sit down again. Then his legs begin to shake and he stands up and paces around again; whenever Dodd “makes an enemy” Freddie pays that person a violent visit; when Freddie and Dodd reunite, somewhere in the middle of the film, they wrestle on the front lawn of Dodd’s house and Dodd spanks Freddie in a friendly manner; and so forth. Freddie is unmistakably a dog and Dodd referring to him as a silly animal throughout the film is not accidental. Freddie is actually physically dog-like and I find this type of characterization fascinating.
The only potential problem with Freddie being a dog is that dogs don’t think. Much like most other animals on Earth they just do things and can be taught to perform tricks. Performing tricks and obeying others are instinctive and reflexive, not intelligent or intellectual and so Freddie is, technically, entirely mindless. He can learn how do dress properly, showcases table manners, and speak with proper grammar, but those are simply tricks that he’s learned and have become instinctive. As a dog he wanders aimlessly through life, from one warm home to another, drinks and fornicates. There’s not much of a personality to Freddie’s character, aside from being the primitive Neanderthal that he is, but it’s a performances for the ages.
The film flaunts many themes throughout and they are what the film is about: Freudian themes; loss of innocence; finding a master to follow and learning everything that one can learn from him; the possibility that everyone on earth, in one way or another is crazy.
There are a few neat connections between Freddie acting out his primitive needs and Dodd asking his faithful followers to recall their past lives, lives that may go back to the caveman era. There’s the recurring theme of resurrection and throughout the film Dodd attempts to recall where he and Freddie had first met. He eventually recalls it, but it’s more The Cause speaking than anything fruitful. Dodd is clearly a con artist and as the film progress one can easily discern that he’s talking out of his derriere.
The Master is a tough nut to crack. However, it’s continually fascinating, the cinematography should have won an Oscar (although it wasn’t even nominated), and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is revelatory. He is the Montgomery Clift of his generation and here his performance isn’t just fascinating, it’s brilliant. When staring at the screen we don’t see an actor or a character in a film, we witness the strange, intriguing life of a person we’ve never met. We want to follow him because his seemingly random, bizarre acts of craziness are, sadly entertaining. That’s why this film excels so well: it’s entertaining. Freddie and Dodd clashing heads is terrifically fun to watch and those are also the times where the actors deliver their best performances. Joaquin and Hoffman should have won those Oscars and my views are as objective as they are subjective.
This is one of 2012’s very best films on all levels. Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA) still hasn’t made a bad film and is only growing stronger in terms of borrowing from the past and delivering in the present. Watching films like The Master and There Will Be Blood (2007) makes one yearn for the classic of yore. PTA’s films are shot like those old-school films, the performances are unrivalled, and the films tell fascinating tales about the human psyche. This film challenges its audience, but when it’s over you want to watch it again; even if you disliked it initially. Yes, it’s that good.
The special features are “Back Beyond”: Outtakes, Additional Scenes- Music by Johnny Greenwood; “Unguided Message”: 8 Minute Short- Behind the Scenes, “Let There Be Light” (1946)- John Huston’s landmark documentary about WWII veterans; and teasers and Trailers.
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