Francisco Lo sees traces of John Ford and Albert Camus in the best film of 2012—Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.
Very little is revealed about Freddie Quell before the end of World War II. Freddie, the protagonist played by Joaquin Phoenix, is on the verge of completing his deployment and is shown going through a series of mental health assessments in the first act. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson diabolically alienates any causal audience by introducing him in the most unflattering light possible—making lewd jokes and masturbating at the sea. The Navy man is a self-destructive alcoholic who makes a pass at any object that resembles the female body. This walking Freudian specimen meets his match when he stumbles onto a ship captained by Lancaster Dodd—a leader of a spiritual and faux-scientific movement called The Cause. Played by Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dodd—the eponymous “master”—is instantly intrigued by the erratic Freddie, whom a self-proclaimed Renaissance man like him has little in common with at face value. Long before The Master was released, there was already plenty of chatter about the uncanny similarities between Hoffman’s character and L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. In fact, Anderson made no secret that many of the ideas and practices behind The Cause is derived from Hubbard’s Dianetics, though his film is nowhere near as critical of Scientology as the tabloids have presumed. The role of the cult in The Master is similar to the role porn plays in Boogie Nights—it simply serves as the milieu of the characters but not as the thematic center of the film.
At its core, The Master is about Freddie’s numerous failed attempts at connecting with the rest of humanity. Without divulging much on his experience at war and his relationships with his family, Anderson leaves it up to the individual viewer to interpret Freddie’s current actions, which allows more room for empathy as each viewer is more likely to project his/her own personal experience in the absence of context regarding to Freddie. Doris (Madisen Beaty), the girl next door from his hometown, is the only shred of Freddie’s past that is presented to us through a few snippets of flashbacks, which are also the few fleeting moments that shows us a gentler side of Freddie. Continue reading