While it’s sure to alienate some for its refusal to adhere to their expectations of narrative and characterisation, The Master is a timely depiction of the susceptibility of the rootless and disaffected to the imprecations of cult leaders cloaked in the rhetoric of pseudo-science.
Much has been made of the resemblance of The Master’s ‘Cause’ to Scientology and of its leader Lancaster Dodd’s resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard, but in an era when mainstream politicians routinely ignore incontrovertible scientific and historical facts when it suits their social agendas, the film’s importance is really as a more general cautionary tale.
Freddie Quell (a never better Joaquin Phoenix) is an alcoholic suffering from mental illness he likely inherited from his mother which was exacerbated by combat stress from his time in the Navy during WWII. He can’t hold down a job and drifts around Southern California while slowly poisoning himself with the toxic home-made liquor he concocts.
One night, Quell sneaks aboard a luxury yacht and is summoned before The Master, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who shrewdly assesses Quell while seducing him with warmth and flattery. Quell quickly becomes Dodd’s right hand man, but his alcoholism and volatility make the family members who comprise the rest of Dodd’s inner circle wary. Dodd however sees Quell as a perfect guinea pig for his half-baked, ludicrous theories about human nature and history; if he can transform Quell and help him to interact with others appropriately, he will have created an excellent advert for his teachings – and the violence which always lurks barely an inch below Quell’s surface is also useful when intimidation is called for.
Joaquin Phoenix’s sunken eyes and weathered, angular face have never looked more haunted than they do here; even when he’s smiling, his pain-clouded eyes betray the lie of his upturned mouth. I’ve never felt that he exhibited the kind of ‘can’t take your eyes off him’ presence that is on display here (I wasn’t a fan of his turn as Johnny Cash). His Quell is in a constant state of (at least) partial madness, but he retains just enough sanity to be able to function socially.
Hoffman’s Dodd is a misleadingly benign presence; he’s a con man with a patriarchal aura who only lets his genial façade slip when he is challenged about his crackpot theories or when he is pushing Quell or others with his manipulative techniques known as ‘processing’, which one sceptic correctly identifies as hypnosis-like. Just as madness is never far from Quell’s eyes, shrewd assessment never leaves Dodd’s, for like all effective con men, he never stops taking the measure of people and figuring out what they need and how to give it to them.
Shot in 70mm, the film has the sort of warm glow that is becoming a rarity as cinema comes to be entirely dominated by the chill of digitally recorded images. The film is over 2 hours long, and whether the running time feels long will entirely depend on how the viewer responds to Paul Thomas Anderson’s narrative style. As was the case with his last film There Will Be Blood, this is filmmaking to be admired and enthralled by, rather than being engaged on an emotional level.