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The Master – A Film Review

The Master was shot in 65mm film. The last fiction film to be shot like this was Hamlet (1996) (image source:

Film audiences have been anticipating The Master for a while now. Rightly so. It is a work of genius.

Written, directed and co-produced by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) The Master is a feast for cinematography lovers and acting buffs. The direction is evocative, capturing scenes in beautiful light and angles, playing with color, hue and perspective that is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s sensational touch. Single shots that track choreographed scenes set the tone, breaking away for the established setup shots, opening up a field in which the actors dance with the camera to the beats of an inventive script.

The stars in this case are two, and they offer inspired performances. On the one hand there’s Freddie Quell, played by a sulfuric Joaquin Phoenix. Freddie is a disturbed WWII veteran-turned-drifter, a vagrant unable to hold on to a job due to his volatile disposition. Bent out of shape, drunk on moonshine which he makes out of corrosive chemicals, like gasoline and paint thinner, and obsessed with fucking (yes, fucking, because ‘sex’ is too mild a word to describe his obsession), he meanders across the US until he bumps into Lancaster Dodd and his entourage.

Lancaster Dodd, played by an effervescent Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a cult figure, an eccentric writer and speaker, who slowly but surely develops a following. His ideas are founded on impressive, exaggerated, and often absurd insight, the contents of which he communicates with gusto at every chance, spinning a web around his enthusiastic admirers. To drive the point home he performs “applications”, hypnotic interventions designed to release people from their eternal slumber, so that they may take control of their lives. His demeanor is friendly and amiable, but he doesn’t respond well to criticism and open debate.

When Freddie and Lancaster meet for the first time, something happens. They fit together like zip and zipper. One wraps around the other in a way that leaves everyone around them wondering how on earth these two different characters have bonded.

Well, the truth of the matter is that they’re not so different after all. As time passes, we see that they’re both unhinged, to each their own. Freddie is a scoundrel who can’t control his impulses. He’s loyal and unafraid, willing to endure tons of pain and discomfort, but tends to resort to physical violence when cornered.

Lancaster on the other hand is a kook who convinces others that he holds the answers to the world’s plight. He’s willing to go to the ends of the earth to get his points across, no matter the price he has to pay for it. He resorts to verbal abuse when cornered.

Together, Lancaster and Freddie make a deadly concoction.

They also destroy each other. Like the corrosive chemicals Freddie uses in his moonshine and the absurd ideas Lancaster injects in his followers’ minds, they nibble away at each other, little by little. Left alone, they sit together like two batches of nitroglycerin, beautifully compatible and shining in each other’s light, but reinsert them in real life and the slightest touch sets them off, to each their own.

Redemption is like daylight. It graces a person through a glass barrier. To fully appreciate it, of course, one must step outside and be fully immersed in it. (image from The Master)

Caught between this volatile and flawed relationship is Peggy Dodd, Lancaster’s wife (Amy Adams). Eager to do her husband’s bidding but threatened by Freddie’s unusual pull on him, she orbits between the two men, trying to prevent things from disintegrating. With everyone in the world seemingly against them, it’s a tall order. But Peggy’s no pushover, and does what she has to.

A Difficult Journey

This movie is a conceptual feast. The course on which the two main characters and their ensemble take you is one of self-discovery, hope and madness. Through them we experience the journey of every man and woman who seeks to make a better life for himself/herself in the wake of a victorious war that turned the country into a powerhouse, a machine in search of machine parts. Looking for meaning in this organized mayhem is not easy. Freddie, like every man and woman, does precisely that, searching for something valuable, eager to throw himself into the hands of anyone willing to offer him a chance to be not just a machine part, but a participant in something grand and visionary.

As for Lancaster, he portrays and projects all the joys and perils that accompany individuals who consider themselves greater than the system. His is the story of people who challenge the norm, transcending their meaningless lives, assuming control of their surroundings, and dictating how things ought to work in increasingly unreasonable ways. We follow the delusion of grandeur that taints him, witnessing the effect it has on his disciples, on all those who’re looking for madness to the method instead of the other way round.

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman try to make sense of “The Cause” in The Master
(photo credit: machupicchu/flickr)

The story is all about madness. Loosely based on the life and workings of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, The Master depicts with subtlety the early steps of one of the most successful but controversial religious movements of the modern era. It never mentions the topic, nor does it point fingers, or make lectures, or offer explicit warning, or score political points. It just tells the story of two men and their inner circle.

This film is also about volatility and self-determination; about the power inherent in elements that react forcefully when combined – internal, innate, hidden power, waiting to go off, smoothly if left alone, insidiously if left unchecked, violently if challenged. This is a tale of flawed renegades and misfits in pursuit of their destiny in a world too placid to satisfy their curiosity, and too unwilling to entertain their interests.

Thus the film is called The Master, not The Servant. This may be Freddie’s story, not Lancaster’s, but it’s always the Master’s story. Because there’s a master in everyone, looking to rise up and walk alone, down his or her own path, flawed as it may be.

All one can do is try not to hurt others in the process.

One of the two main characters ends up hurting loads of people. The other doesn’t. I won’t tell you who does what.

Check it out. It will leave you bittersweetly satisfied.