The Master

The Master is possibly a veiled history of Scientology, but I’m not going to go into that. I know I’m not qualified. Scientology or no Scientology, it’s definitely about a cult. The purpose of this cult, “The Cause,” is to bring everybody out of their pitiful, brutish degradation into their “inherent state of perfect.” They do this by “processing,” which seems to consist of many bizarre exercises, including hypnotic time travel and rapid-fire interviews to reveal embarrassing shortcomings. They seem to believe in some sort of reincarnation, though that term is never used. You have to correct all of your past lives, your present life, and aspire to perfection in your future life. This is the goal, and will make you enlightened or something.

The movie opens with Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) doing all sorts of strange things. This is World War II, and it is just ending. We don’t necessarily know if Freddie is messed up because of the war, or whether he was always this way, but that is hardly the point. We see him lose various jobs, drinking along the way. This guy is a hardcore drinker; he doesn’t just drink alcohol, but also paint thinner and other liquids that aren’t fit for human consumption in any amount. He often lashes out violently for no discernible reason. After fleeing from a possible murder, he stumbles on Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his “cause.”

Dodd immediately takes an interest in him, possibly because he wants to help him, possibly because he wants to control him. Maybe both. Freddie is obviously unstable, and could do with some help. Maybe this crazy “Master” is the guy for the job. Freddie is the perfect case for him; he is very raw and impulsive, exactly the time of “animal” that Dodd wants to reform.

Don’t forget though, this is a cult. Is Dodd to be trusted? While Freddie repeatedly turns to violence, Dodd never does. His logical arguing skills could use some work, and he is by no means perfect, but he is not physically violent. Even though his ideas about time travel and such seem strange, his goal is eventually admirable. He doesn’t want to use violence; he wants to teach Freddie self control, which he is clearly lacking in. Whenever Dodd is challenged, he just accuses the challenger of being afraid of world peace and nonviolence. Most reasonable people would recognize that his ideas are not founded on much, and he is just playing mind games for control.

Freddie can’t make up his mind about The Cause. At times he responds well to “processing,” getting some painful memories out of his system and learning some self control. But other times, he defends Dodd so zealously he goes against the processing and beats up and almost kills Dodd’s challengers. Dodd does not encourage this, even though he wants obedience from everyone. Other times, Freddie turns against not only Dodd’s teachings, but Dodd himself. I feel that that’s what this film is about: this power struggle for control over Freddie.

I’ve read reviews of this film that maintained the film wasn’t focused enough on the cult, and didn’t really have any cohesive opinion on it. I think the film chose to focus on the aforementioned power struggle, rather than judge The Cause or cults in general. The films did this by switching sides between Freddie and Dodd, sometimes neither. When Freddie is beating people up, I felt like “ok, Dodd, cure him. I don’t care how you do it, just fix him.” Other times when Dodd was processing him and putting him through all of these weird exercises, I felt like “Freddie, get out there. Dodd is just creepy and there is no way he is going to really help you.” Sometimes I couldn’t get on either side. Dodd’s ending speech really solidified this “power struggle as the main point” idea for me. He says to Freddie that he can stay, but if he leaves they will be “enemies in the next life.” The two are really in battle over who will control Freddie, and the film’s question to the audience is “which person’s control would be more beneficial and healthy?” It never really gets answered, and while that may bother some people, I liked it. It allowed me to draw my own conclusions.

This film was very thought-provoking. Even though it was pretty strange, and I didn’t really like the characters personally, I couldn’t look away from it. I was very invested in it and needed to find out who would win the control battle. The acting was very mesmerizing, which is appropriate considering the content. There was a very important performance that I haven’t mentioned yet, and that is Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife Peggy. In some ways she was even creepier than Dodd, and more of an enigma that kept me guessing how much control she had over Dodd and the Cause. Phoenix was great. I could sympathize with him when I needed to and also be disgusted with him. Same with Hoffman, though he wasn’t as sympathetic as a character. I would strongly recommend this film to anybody who is interested in the influence of charismatic people over a fellow human being’s life, cults, or free will.

“Free will is no tyranny for you.”

***All of these quotes were from memory. As I saw this in theaters, I couldn’t very well interrupt everyone’s movie watching with my note-taking, besides it being dark. I apologize if I quoted anything incorrectly. IMDb’s quotes aren’t up yet, so I did my best to remember!***

Long story short: 4/4 stars

For Further Reading:

PG Cooper’s Movie Reviews 2012 review 
Dan the Man’s Movie Reviews 2012 review

4 responses to “The Master

    • Thanks for the compliment, my friend.
      I actually abandoned the note-taking system a couple weeks ago because it was just too much work. So there is probably going to be misquoting all over the place. I don’t know if anybody would mind, but if people hear my pencil going they might not like it. Anyway it’s dark, so it’s kind of a moot point.

  1. Good review Hunter. Interesting, compelling, and very original in where it goes with it’s story, how it does, and how it eventually plays itself out. Amazing performances from Phoenix and Hoffman who I think are actually Oscar-worthy ones.

    • Thanks for the compliment! Glad you liked the piece.
      I agree, and I’m especially rooting for Phoenix for best actor based on the films I’ve seen so far this year. (Though I’m afraid Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln is going to steal his thunder.)
      The Master is kind of tricky because it can go a lot of ways. I’ve read a lot of interesting takes on it but this is what I initially saw so I went with it.

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