December 10, 2012 -- “The Master” is easily the least accessible of Paul Thomas Anderson's (writer-director) recent films, such as “There Will Be Blood” and “Punch-Drunk Love.” There is a story, convoluted, weaving in and out of time and space, of a spiritual and emotional journey in which little progress is made slowly over a long time (144 minutes). I lost interest in the film's narrative, which was weak to begin with, long before the end.
The film's central character, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix of “Walk the Line”) is a sometimes violent, volatile sexually dysfunctional alcoholic with a talent for making potentially toxic drinks from alcohol and other poisonous liquids. In one of the early scenes, we see Freddy dry humping a sand sculpture of a woman and masturbating at a public beach. He is arrested once in the film for attacking police officers, but it seems there should have been more arrests. There is a lot of nudity in this film.
Freddie is shown to be an ill fit in society. After World War II, he loses his job as a department store photographer when he gets into a fight with a customer. He is chased off a farm labor job by fellow workers after one of his more toxic potions causes a serious illness in another worker. He seems to be homeless, or working his way towards homelessness, when he stumbles into a large luxury boat headed to New York from California. There, he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman of “The Ides of March”) the leader of a New Age spiritual movement called “The Cause.”
Dodd meets Freddie and likes him. He likes Freddie's candor and he likes the strange toxic alcoholic potions he creates from various chemicals. Dodd also finds Freddie's numerous psychological problems a challenge for him to fix. The question is, if Dodd succeeds in making Freddie into a more normal person, will Dodd like this new Freddie he has created? Like so many themes in the film, there are hints, but no answers to this question.
The strange relationship between Dodd and Freddie is the central love story (of sorts) of the film. While it would seem that Freddie has little to offer Dodd, other than his devotion and ability to make strange cocktails, Dodd has much to offer Freddie, money, power and a new system of beliefs. It would seem there something going on between these two under the surface. “The Cause” has a belief system which seems similar to Scientology. It has to do with reincarnation and uncovering events in lives and past lives which have a bearing on a person's current state of mind. Dodd conducts sessions called “processing” in which Dodd asks Freddie questions about his emotional state and events in his life. Scientology has a similar process called “auditing.”
Even though Freddie likes Dodd's processing sessions, and he follows Dodd's spiritual exercises, he seems to be resistant to their intended effects. He remains an alcoholic and he is still erratic and violent, attacking people who criticize Dodd. After both Freddie and Dodd are arrested (Dodd for theft of money from a rich patron and Freddie for attacking the arresting policemen) they yell obscenities at each other from their adjoining jail cells. Freddie accuses Dodd of being a false prophet, of “making it up as he goes along.”
Freddie also runs afoul of the real power in this operation, Dodd's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams of “Trouble With the Curve.” Peggy confronts Freddie and tells him to stop drinking. She also confronts her husband about his sexual encounters with other women (following a scene in which a number of women appear totally nude while Dodd, fully clothed, sings a song to them). Peggy seems to have power over her husband and is determined to see “The Cause” become a profitable business. It appears that Peggy and the rest of Dodd's family are not true believers in “The Cause,” but are mainly interested in the money and power flowing from Dodd's followers. Freddie seems to have no interest in power and money.
In the movie's final act we find Dodd essentially unchanged, but becoming more powerful. Freddie, on the other hand, does seem to change. Since one of Freddie's problems was probably post traumatic stress disorder from World War II, it may be that this problem has diminished with time. It is also possible that Dodd's treatments helped, too. Freddie does seem to be better, and he is able to leave some of his past hangups behind him.
While the movie does have some nice cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. and some interesting camera angles and shots, and the acting is superb, the slow pace of the film and the lack of sympathetic characters is a problem that is not overcome. With almost no narrative progression, this film is basically a character study in which the main characters remain little changed and enigmatic. I kept wanting to check my watch, to know when this film would finally end, so I could be free of these creepy characters. It may be that this movie would be more interesting or relevant to those who know a lot about Scientology, or who know somebody who believes in Scientology. For others, like myself, this movie rates a C.
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