The Master follows a lost, deranged man named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Psychologically damaged in the second world war, Quell returns to the US but finds it impossible to hold on to jobs. He has violent impulses and memory problems. After another breakdown, he is chased away and sneaks onto a boat that is set to leave. This boat is run by a charismatic individual, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is not only the captain, but a cult leader to all the other community members on the vessel. On the boat, Quell and Dodd enter a toxic relationship of master and follower.
Without ever saying it out loud, The Master is about L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. If you’re familiar with the “origin story” of the cult that Hubbard collected around him, through a documentary maybe or a non-fiction book such as Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear (2013), then this is very obvious. Hubbard had a history of pathological lying, imagining himself to be a great hero. He gained a following and bought a boat, on which the whole group formed a small community. Hubbard presided as the leader, cooked up strange community rules, and the boat travelled all over the world. In The Master, the same storyline is evident and there are numerous hints towards this history, such as Quell finding books lying around, titled Cause, written by the cult leader Dodd.
By not mentioning all this by name, Paul Thomas Anderson refrains from making his movie specifically about scientology. His interest lies much more on the level of strange personalities, strong emotions and the fascinating relationships that arise between unconventional people. The interplay between the master Dodd and the lost man Quell is at the heart of this movie. Quell is a strange man on this ship. While the people around him believe through Dodd’s teaching in some form of rising above our animal impulses, Quell is haunted by his impulses. Lost his sense of shame. Phoenix’s Quell is terribly unpredictable and unstable.
Quell becomes Dodd’s “guinea pig and protégé”. Quell needs Dodd’s acceptance. The man is basically the only person left who gives Quell any attention. And Dodd meanwhile, he wants to be the Source. The guy everyone looks to for guidance. And Dodd really appears to believe in his outlandish theories. If he cannot help a guy like Quell, then is he failing in helping mankind? He needs Quell because he needs to believe in his own work. But all codependent relationships are like ticking time bombs. The more Quell shows that he is beyond help for Dodd, the more Dodd starts pushing him, and the more Quell reacts impulsively. They both love and hate each other.
Both characters are not just played by Hoffman and Phoenix. They are sculpted. Both men are acting with their entire body. Phoenix is scruffy; stooping and grinning. He avoids honest interaction with other people. Hoffman is intense and calculated. Everyone hangs on to his voice, his judgments. He dances, surrounded by admirers who are nevertheless afraid of his influence. The sessions between them are a masterclass in acting. For both actors, this is a role of a lifetime. And special mention must go to Amy Adams, who, playing Dodd’s wife, is stuck in the middle and just as committed to the Cause as Lancaster.
A masterful film, created with great dedication by all the actors, actresses and Paul Thomas Anderson, who both wrote and directed it. He shows a strong understanding of human nature. His direction shows, rather than tells, so that we feel the emotional layers subconsciously. The second half of the film becomes more and more uncomfortable, because we feel the connection between Dodd and Quell failing. Too bad that the story fizzles out, rather than comes to a final breakdown. Compared to Anderson’s previous film There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master loses impact towards the end, but for long stretches it maintains a very high quality.