“A tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure.”

― Charles Chaplin

The Master (2012): American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson's hypnotic masterpiece

A profound character-study high on drama

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews 

The Master, Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman
The Master (2012)- By Paul Thomas Anderson
Our Rating: 9.0
IMDb Ratings: 7.7
CastPhilip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams
Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 144 min

Summary: A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future - until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.

The Master is the latest film by American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. The movie comes after a gap of five years following Anderson’s highly successful outing in There Will Be Blood (2007). The Master stars Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams in pivotal roles. Anderson is one of the few commercial filmmakers alive today who write their own screenplays. And perhaps that’s the reason why he has not been very prolific as a filmmaker—yielding only once every 4-5 years. The Master also marks the return of Joaquin Phoenix from a self-imposed acting break. The movie presents the tale of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix)—a WWII Naval veteran on the brink of a mental breakdown. Freddie's is a dying breed that finds it hard to adjust to the sanities of a post-war civilized world.  The excruciating pain and mental trauma that a soldier experiences during a war is irreversible and often enough to drive him crazy.

Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in The Master, takes a still photograph, standing behind the still camera, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in The Master
Freddie has had a troubled past but the war has broken him completely. Freddie’s pitiful, perverted mental state can be best described by the two bizarre scenes presented at the beginning of the film. In the first, Freddie is shown masturbating in front of a sand sculpture of a woman which he perversely seems to use as a substitute for a love doll. In the second one, Freddie is shown imbibing a certain fluid (most likely gasoline) directly from the fuel tank of a Navy vessel. Apparently, Freddie is dipsomaniac with a morbid liking for dangerous cocktail drinks which he prepares by mixing alcohol with toxic substances like paint thinner. After being relieved from the US Navy, Freddie gets the job of a photographer at a local joint, but is soon fired after he, in a drunken state, assaults one of the customers. Freddie subsequently finds a job on a cabbage farm where a worker dies after drinking a lethal doze of one of his cocktail drinks. After being chased off the farm by a seething mob of workers, Freddie stows away on the private yacht of Lancaster Dodd aka “The Master” (Philip Seymour Hoffman)

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd in The Master, delivering a speech, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd in The Master
Dodd is the charismatic leader of a philosophical movement called “The Cause” and is popular among his disciples by the sobriquet “The Master”. His controversial metaphysical theories have divided the society into two factions: a very large section which is completely opposed to his ideas and a very small section which hails him as a visionary. Dodd’s enigmatic character is based on L. Ron Hubbard—the American pulp fiction author and the controversial founder of the Church of Scientology. Like Hubbard, Dodd is also a polymath. In one of the scenes in the movie, Dodd introduces himself to Quell, “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.” Lancaster Dodd likes spending his time in his yacht cruising as it allows him to remain close to his clique of adherents and disciples—which also includes his wife, son, daughter, and son-in-law—far away from the intellectually inferior majority that dare question his credibility.

Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in The Master, enjoying the sea wind, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
A Still from Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master
Dodd develops an instant liking for Quell and allows him to stay on his yacht. He also develops a taste for Quell’s brand of toxic booze and even asks him to prepare a larger quantity of it the next time around. Dodd also begins to apply a method called “processing” to help treat Quell. Dodd describes it as some kind of reverse hypnosis that treats the patients by purging the worries hidden deep inside the subconscious. Over the course of time Quell grows exceedingly fond of “The Master” and his methods. For the second time in his life (after his stint in the US Navy), Quell sees a cause worth fighting for. He begins to show a kind of jingoistic fervor for “The Cause”. Anyone who dares to oppose “The Master” and his preaching will have to first deal with him. What follows is a hypnotic journey of self-realization which will either consume Quell or will make him the true master of his fate.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd in The Master, rides a bike in the desert, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
A Still from Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master
The Master is a multifaceted work of cinema that can be enjoyed at so many levels. The Master has a sense of randomness attached to it that makes it a very difficult film to interpret. It may appear to have several interweaved layers to one viewer, and yet appear completely hollow to another—depending purely on the viewer’s understanding and interpretation. Cinema, like Literature, is a powerful medium that can be used to explore an array of different subjects simultaneously. In The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson uses the medium in a manner it has seldom been used in recent times in American cinema. He makes a commendable attempt at tackling spirituality, metaphysics, empiricism, existentialism and nihilism, all in one go—a remarkable feat that Terrence Malick had achieved in his Palme d’Or winning masterpiece The Tree of Life (2011). If Malick’s was the work of an artist working at the height of his creative mastery then Anderson’s surely is the work of an upcoming artist toiling hard to attain that level of mastery.

Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, The Master, Freddie Quell undergoes a therapy under the guidance of Lancaster Dodd, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
A Still from Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master
The Master works well on both the technical and emotional fronts—another rarity for an American film. The movie’s cinematography, music and editing are all topnotch, and complement each other really well. The acting is awe-inspiring to say the least and is quite easily one of the strongest points of the movie. Also, there's enough room for character development. Like the character of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, Dodd and Quell are both haunted by their abject solitude. They are pariahs of the society who try and find solace in each other's company. While the relationship that the two of them share is explicitly platonic in nature, an undercurrent of homosexual impulse cannot be ruled out.
Amy Adams as Mrs. Peggy Dodd in The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd in The Master
Joaquin Phoenix is electrifying in the role of a lifetime. He takes great pains in conjuring up his self-loathing, verminous, reclusive alter ego as he himself gets lot in the role. The attention that he seems to have paid to perfect Freddie’s distorted mannerisms, and the nuances and subtleties needed to play such a complex part is nothing short of exemplary. While some may find it a wee bit over-the-top, Phoenix’s performance is by far the best of the year and even overshadows Daniel Day-Lewis’ sublime portrayal in Steven Spielberg’s biopic, Lincoln (2012). Philip Seymour Hoffman is outstanding in the role of Lancaster Dodd and steals each and every scene he is a part of. Anderson elicits strong performances from the supporting cast especially Amy Adams who is an absolute treat to watch as Dodd’s exacting wife, Peggy.

Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in The Master, sitting beside the sand sculpture of a woman, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
A Still from Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master
Overall, The Master is an endlessly fascinating work of cinema that may require multiple viewings to grasp its deeper meanings. The Master is undoubtedly the best film to have come out of the English-speaking world in the year 2012. It reaffirms Anderson's position as one of the best US directors alive; he looks all set to join the likes of Malick. Anderson’s imaginative direction in The Master reminds one of the singular styles of two of the greatest American filmmakers, Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick. Perhaps, their legacy has finally found a worthy successor. It’s a real shame that the Academy yet again failed to identify a cinematic gem. The fact that the movie has not been nominated in the Best Picture category only substantiates the ineptness of the Academy in segregating topnotch cinema from the heaps of mediocrity. The Master, like most of Anderson’s movies, is not meant for everyone. A casual viewer is ought to be disappointed, for he may find it drab and utterly boring. But, The Master will most definitely succeed in satisfying the deepest cravings of an intelligent viewer. The Master with its air of randomness and lack of purpose offers enough food for thought for the intelligent audience to ruminate long after it is over. Highly recommended!

Note: This post is a part of Oscar Blogathon being conducted at Paula's Cinema Club. Paul Thomas Anderson's is The Master (2012) is nominated in three categories for this year's Oscars viz. Best Actor (leading), Best Actor (supporting) and Best Actress (supporting).

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!  

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  1. Wonderful review. I'm motivated to watch the movie, especially if Ron Hubbard is involved.

  2. I am glad to hear that. I am sure that the movie won't disappoint you. The real beauty of the movie is its randomness... it is not limited to depiction of any one person, society, or theme... it transcends any such demarcation. This aberration can easily unsettle a viewer. Having said that, I would love to hear your thoughts once you have watched the movie.

  3. Hmmm....I will surely watch it.

  4. I am glad to hear that. I am sure that the movie won't disappoint you. The real beauty of the movie is its randomness... it is not limited to depiction of any one person, society, or theme... it transcends any such demarcation. This aberration can easily unsettle a viewer. Having said that, I would love to hear your thoughts once you have watched the movie.

  5. Fantastic review. Good interpretations and perfect references, especially to Malik's "Tree of Life." You are right, PT Anderson will be our generation's Kubrick or Orson Welles. Like all of PTA's movies, I am going to watch "Master" multiple times to grasp its meaning fully.

  6. Thanks Arun! I agree with you that the movie requires multiple viewings for complete understanding. P T Anderson is a worthy successor to the likes of Kubrick and Welles.


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