The Master is one of the most challenging movies of recent memory. This is not to say that it’s confusing or otherwise hard to follow; the real difficulty is drawing meaning from a film that greatly challenges typical narrative structure. Cynics might ask, “What’s the point?” But it’s very important to be patient while watching; every scene is subtle and simplistic, often drawn out for long and sometimes uncomfortable lengths of time. Conflicts between characters are established early on but don’t build as much as expected. When the film first introduces Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), he is clearly deranged, violent, sex-obsessed, and at times, unaware of how deeply rooted these problems are. By the end of the film, little has changed for him; no lessons have been learned and everyone is left to wonder what, if anything, he has taken away from his experiences.
After only the briefest glimpse of Freddie during the war, he is first introduced as a sailor in the waning days of World War II with several odd habits and issues. He pretends to have sex with a sand sculpture of a woman, drinks fuel straight from a torpedo (some sailors actually did this, as the fuel was 180-proof alcohol), and when psychiatrists evaluate him, he has little to say about his behavior. Freddie evokes other past Anderson characters who were obsessed with violence or sex, such as Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love and Frank T. J. Mackey in Magnolia. His behavior is compulsive in every sense and it does not stop or slow down.In a typical narrative, the mounting tension between Freddie, charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), and Lancaster’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) would be punctuated by violence or some other climactic action before reaching a definitive end. Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood, shows conflict building between two characters until violence is inevitable, but in The Master, Freddie’s violent nature is far more unpredictable.
In his wanderings, unable to hold down a job for any extended period of time, Freddie is drawn to Dodd’s cult known as “The Cause.” When Freddie stumbles on a cruise ship during Dodd’s daughter’s wedding, it first seems as aimless as anything else he has done; but it results in Freddie’s attraction the cult after he experiences a strange therapy called Processing. The therapy requires him to answer several personal questions, sometimes the same ones again and again, without blinking. If he blinks, then the questions start from the beginning. Freddie is at first dismissive but begins to relent and reveal parts of himself that he has tried to hide away. But the woman he truly cared about before the war and his reasons for running remain elusive, even to Freddie himself.
Following other sequences of equally strange therapy, Freddie stays devoted to The Cause, but still doesn’t make any real progress on his underlying issues. In some moments, he doubts that Dodd actually knows what he is doing, as do others. These ideas are quashed just as quickly as they are raised and Freddie is still willing to literally beat anyone who questions or opposes the Master’s teachings. The real conflict lies with Freddie’s uncertainty. He can’t always stay in one place but he can’t always seem to run away for good. He begins the film as a drifter and inevitably continues drifting the entire time.
The performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams are without a doubt some of the best of their careers. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood is also at the top of his game with the impeccable soundtrack he wrote for the film; hopefully, he will receive some awards for his soundtrack this time around. Visually, the film is both stunning and perfectly evocative of its time period. The pictures Freddie takes as a department store photographer, for example, look as authentic as they possibly could.
Although, more cynical reviews have decried The Master for being meaningless, there is simply too much depth in Freddie’s character alone to be so dismissive. One warning though to those who have seen all of the teasers: those previews contain quite a lot of unused footage. Some moments that really stood out in the previews—including Freddie shouting at Dodd to tell him something that’s true—just aren’t there. Luckily enough, what remains provides a challenging and haunting character study.