The Master is an insightful and explosive examination of humanity in the aftermath of World War II with commentary on American culture. World War II has ended and a naval veteran, Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) has trouble adjusting to civilian life. An encounter with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his collective group of followers known as “The Cause” give him direction.
Rather than focusing on the actual war writer and director, Paul Thomas Anderson chooses to begin the film on the precipice of peace hinting at the effect the war has had on the soldiers: primal desires to fornicate and experiment with drinking pure alcohol and rocket fuel are the norm for Freddie and company. As the soldiers are relieved of their duty via physiological tests and pep talks about a career in the prosperous 1950s, it’s dawns that the world has changed and a good deal of positive new age thinking is necessary to deal with the great human loss of the war.
Phoenix is volatile as Freddie as he tries to adjust to the ideals fantasy of 1950s America personified by his job as a photographer. He’s tasked with capturing cherub like children and darling teenage sweethearts within the walls of a shopping complex selling the American dream. Anderson does a brilliant job setting up Freddie as the jagged piece of the puzzle that refuses to fit.
Once Freddie is in the hands of Dodd and The Cause, Anderson shifts the focus to the relationship between the two men. Dodd attempts to tame Freddie’s wild temperament. It’s obvious that Dodd is fascinated and frustrated by Freddie’s impulsive nature as he preaches about his quest to return the human spirit to perfection. Dodd easily controls Freddie’s mind and body with a series of oddball exercises but he never commands Freddie’s heart. Soon, Freddie becomes like Frankenstein’s monster lumbering around within The Cause as a failed experiment. It’s a fascinating duel of ideals and Anderson’s writing is potent and brought to life by amazing performances. It’s a fascinating study of human nature as animal instincts are at odds with mind and spirit.
Hoffman is an intellectual beast with an astounding performance comparative to the work of Marlon Brando in films like The Godfather and Apocalypse Now as he completely dissolves into character. Hoffman is calm on the surface but when his rage erupts we see a man at odds with the message he preaches. Phoenix is mesmerising as an unstable force of nature that shows tenderness when it comes to matters of the heart. Amy Adams is brilliant playing Dodd’s wife who reveals herself as the true master and asserts her control over Dodd’s mind and heart, something he cannot accomplish with Freddie. She is deceptive and dangerous and within her relationship with Dodd and Freddie, Anderson deconstructs the hierarchy or new age movements and even the power play between men and women under the bond of marriage.
The original music by composer, Jonny Greenwood enhances the madness of the situation as the minds of Dodd and Freddie go to war. Furious violins, empty drum beats and an orchestra on the edge of the sanity run wild across the beautiful cinematography of Mihai Malaimare Jr.
The Master is one giant mutated onion of a film and this review may only barely scratch the top layer of this intricate film full of engaging ideas and a frank study of human nature. Anderson has unleashed a dragon onto audiences and there may be rewards for those who dare to try and tame it.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies