In Theaters Now: The Master

  • 09/25/2012
  • Terelle Jerricks
  • Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams

After fighting in the Pacific theatre of World War II, Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, returns home a lost soul teetering on the brink of madness. By chance, Quell encounters the charismatic Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who indoctrinates the disturbed veteran into The Cause, a fledgling cult that promises its members a better way of life. But as an uncooperative convert, Quell’s disruptive nature threatens to wash the Cause onto the shoals of the American psyche.

As he did with Magnolia, Boogie Nights, and There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson presents an unsentimental vision of Americana which dynamically fights in opposition to static representations of the past. The late forties and the fifties weren’t flat, Anderson argues through his lens, the greatest generation drank, screwed and were just as loving and horrible to each other as in any other time in history.

Anderson peoples his films with characters that are grimly vulnerable and flawed. True to life, they don’t change much both in relation to each other and themselves. Action is fleeting as is memorable dialogue. Without these distractions, Anderson has a knack for catching his actors thinking in character. While both Adams and Hoffman deliver performances that do justice to their roles, Phoenix was loaded with a heavy burden which he hefted with dexterity and grace.

Anderson is great with ambiguous pathology. The Master is largely told through Quells dysmorphic perspective. The viewer understands that Quell is suffering from PTSD exacerbated by excessive drinking, but gratefully, Anderson only hints at the underlying trauma that continues to haunt Quell. Reactive rather than active, Phoenix’s Quell is a cat soaked in gasoline and set ablaze.

Salvation is subjective. Quell is drawn to Dodd because he is adrift. Dodd is drawn to Quell because he seeks the validation of his psychological theories of personal change. In Quell’s case, Dodd’s quick trick behavioral modification ultimately proves ineffective and dangerous. Whether the organism is called Est or Scientology, Anderson’s lense condemns supposed self-help groups that offer shortcuts to generic salvation. Personal change is possible, though progress is slow and deliberate. Any results are reflective of an individual’s courageous journey inward.

Interestingly, the interplay between the three lead characters seems inspired by Freud’s structural theory, though it’s far from clear that this was Anderson’s intention. Quell is the reckless id that indulgently nurses the entropical will toward self-destruction. Dodd is the ego that shapes the environment looking for the collective approbation of the gods. Peggy Dodd, played by Amy Adams, is the super-ego that judges and keeps things moving. Near film’s end, the freudian trinity gather to discuss Quells disruptive nature. The Dodds offer an ultimatum: acceptance and conformity or banishment forever. Whatever Quell’s choice, the id remains a vital aspect of self. Organisms that would attempt to cleave away essential aspects of themselves find futility, or much worse.

In response to the salivating hordes of media whores, Anderson says that The Master is not about L. Ron Hubbard nor about the early days of the Church of Scientology. But whether or not this is true seems irrelevant and justifies my skepticism of solipsistic thinking that passes for engagement. The Master is tells the story of a troubled man unmoored and adrift in the great sea of humanity. We are universally burdened by the instinct toward sanctuary. It’s wondrous so few of us are lured to bad harbors.

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