Forget what you may have heard – The Master is an incredibly simple film. As far as plot goes, after World War II, seaman Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) wanders west America drunk and lost until he stumbles across a cult run by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The rest of the film follows his attempts to fit in to the cult and find purpose in his life. That’s it. The complexity comes not from the story but the way it is told, with Paul Thomas Anderson’s script quietly probing into the psychological depths of every character.
We begin on the churning wake of a boat, electric blue foam cascading outwards like a vivid echo of the Rorschach test that later contributes to the psychological side of the film. Quell is returning from fighting the Japanese in World War II and he instantly stands out amongst a background of uniform companions. Phoenix contorts and transforms himself into a tightly coiled wire of fury and obsession with a brilliant and surely award-winning performance. He spends much of the film hunched over and sneering, at once crippled by his reliance on sex and alcohol but still convinced of his own independence and authority. He crudely fucks a sand-made woman on the beach then masturbates angrily into the sea. He steals missile fuel for alcohol. He picks fights with the customers he is meant to be photographing in a department store. Quite simply, he is a mess.
Things begin to change when he stumbles upon Dodd’s boat and finds himself ushered down a new path, the path of The Cause. The reliably magnificent Hoffman is powerful, charming and dangerous as cult leader Dodd. One moment he is drifting around, entertaining his followers, the next he is drowning in a sea of bullshit as his beliefs are questioned by rational dissenters.
From the second Quell and Dodd meet there is a connection that develops into a titanic battle of wills. In arguably the best scene, Dodd conducts informal processing on Quell, asking him a series of probing and personal questions with Quell forbidden to blink. Both Quell and the viewer are transfixed by the torturous power of the close-up. Quell’s face scrunches with fear and pain but even so, Dodd’s questioning feels like a charity, literally forcing him to process his past troubles and wild personality.
At first, Dodd’s intentions seem good as he tries to heal Quell’s troubled shell of a man. However, the real nature of their relationship soon becomes that of master and slave. Dodd proclaims that Quell will be his “guinea-pig and protégé” and he is soon tested to within an inch of his sanity by The Cause’s intense methods. As much as he believes he is helping, Dodd is just giving a broken man hope, only to smash him apart again through his misguided abuse of power and trust. Watching Dodd’s ‘teaching’ is like watching him make a bear dance, as his maniacal obsession descends into comedy.
Throughout the film there is also a strong hint of homoeroticism between Dodd and Quell. It’s not quite the Top Gun beach volleyball scene but there is certainly a link that is more than professional or platonic. One such moment comes when Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) tells him he can get away with anything he wants as long as she doesn’t find out, all the while medicinally masturbating her husband into the sink. Tellingly, Dodd reacts with a groan reminiscent of when he drank Quell’s homemade alcohol. The final scenes cement this suggestion with Dodd crooning a heart-breaking song to Quell, before an intriguing final sex scene.
In the end The Master is about finding a way to navigate life, with cult simply one available option. It offers hope to Quell but he grows to realise that Dodd is “making all this up as he goes along. Can’t you see that?” Dodd gets what he deserves in a lack of obedience from Quell. Irrational belief breeds irrational believers so it is no surprise when Quell escapes his meticulous view of the world. Dodd concludes by saying, “if you figure out a way to live without serving a master then let us know will you? Because you’ll be the first person in the history of mankind to manage it.” Quell was a slave to sex, alcohol and Lancaster Dodd but by the film’s conclusion there is hope that just maybe he has become his own master.
Originally published in Exeposé http://issuu.com/exepose/docs/week_10