The Master

| February 26, 2013

At the end of World War II, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix; Walk The Line) isn’t quite sure what to do with himself.  A couple of real world temp jobs don’t work out, but Freddie’s talent for making his own liquor soon attracts the attention of ambitious renaissance man Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman; Synecdoche, New York).  Among other things, Dodd is the leader of what can best be described as a religious cult, though he wouldn’t describe it in such coarse terms.  Freddie is soon drawn into this world, processed and conditioned to be one of Dodd’s loyal followers; a little too loyal actually as Freddie won’t hesitate to assault anyone who questions Dodd’s methods and philosophies.

Had I not known that writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson loosely based the film on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, I definitely wouldn’t have made the connection.  Mostly because I don’t know anything about Scientology.  I think it has something to do with aliens.  Lancaster Dodd’s organization centers around mental time travel guided through hypnosis.  It’s really fascinating to watch this process.  The use of repetition in the questions and answers during these sessions creates a great rhythm for these scenes and when Lancaster and Freddie have their first session, it’s one of my favorite sections of the film; giving great insight into the Freddie character.  Even as pure exposition, this scene is amazing to watch.

I received my screener copy of The Master weeks ago, and was very excited because it was one of the few movies of 2012 that I wanted to see but wasn’t able to.  After watching it once, I was glad to have time before this review was due to watch it a second time because while I enjoyed it the first time, it’s easy to tell that the film will benefit from multiple viewings.  The first time through, the film feels chaotic despite the fact that it follows a linear timeline.  Random jumps from setting to setting are jarring at first, but on the second viewing the flow of the film stabilizes and allows the viewer to appreciate the complexities of the characters and themes.

The two lead characters truly are the most astonishing thing about this film that already has a lot going for it; both in the way they are performed and written.  If it were up to me, Joaquin Phoenix would win the Oscar for best actor this Sunday night.  It seems unlikely that he will beat out Daniel Day-Lewis portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, but Phoenix’s embodiment of Freddie is infinitely more interesting to me.  I seem to be watching a lot of movies lately where I don’t fully understand the actions and motivations of a character, and I’m really enjoying that dynamic as a truly realistic aspect of these films.  There’s no theme to Freddie’s various character traits.  He’s a sexual deviant, prone to rage, able to adapt to his surroundings, and walk away from something he cared passionately about only moments before.  In fact, when Dodd asks Freddie if he’s unpredictable and he responds by farting and laughing, that pretty much perfectly summarizes his character.  It is the best execution of a character that I’ve seen in a very long time.

Hoffman is always great, and this role seems to be tailor made for him even though he’s famous for his versatility.  While there is an unpredictability to his character as well, his actions in any given moment aren’t as surprising as when Freddie switches gears and goes in a new direction.  A large part of Dodd’s characterization comes from his relationship with his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams; Doubt).  Adams is more than capable of filling the shoes of Dodd’s life partner and equal.  There’s a humanity to her performance that makes the character’s more chilling moments deeply disturbing.  However, while Adams and Hoffman are deservedly nominated for Supporting Performance awards, I’m still rooting for Anne Hathaway and Christoph Waltz to win.

Special Features include deleted scenes and outtakes, a sloppy found footage style behind the scenes video, and an hour long 1948 John Huston documentary about WWII veterans entitled “Let There Be Light.”  I didn’t watch the documentary largely because the fact that Freddie’s a veteran has almost nothing to do with the story, but I did find the many deleted scenes interesting.

Available on Blu-ray and DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment on February 26.

About the Author:

Joe Sanders Joe Sanders is a podcaster, playwright, and college instructor in Kalamazoo, MI. He has a master's degree in playwriting and a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches thought and writing, and is the host of the Quote Unquote Guilty podcast, part of the Word Salad Network.
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