The Master: A film review

“Pick a spot over here, touch it and describe it.”  With this command by the Master we take a momentary step back from the film to describe what has become a dark, swirling character study of the alcoholic sailor Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), and the L. Ron Hubbard-inspired Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), known simply as, “Master.”

Freddie is a small, hunched-over man, and he walks around with a slight limp in his gait.  He has a scar on his upper lip and his nose is bent down.  He brews his own liquor from jet fuel and paint thinner, and has a perpetual craving for women.

Mr. Dodd, leader of “The Cause,” is a self-proclaimed writer, doctor, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher, and a sort of father figure to most, particularly Freddie.  He speaks with complete conviction; he states his opinions as though they are simple facts.

He repeatedly emphasizes that, “We are man—we are not animals, we sit as spirits, high above the rest of them.”  It presents a charging dichotomy; the civilized cult leader and the hedonistic scoundrel.

Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer and director of The Master, slowly builds Freddie’s world.  He introduces his characters carefully and leaves room for plenty of nuance.

The cinematography is dreamlike and slow.  There is minimal cutting during conversations between Freddie and the Master, which allows for a relaxed grin to build or a streak of worry to cross the face.

The music, composed by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, is minimal at times, chaotic at others, and stitches scenes together seamlessly.

The Master is not a normal film.  It is not an easy film to watch either, but it is well worth the eccentricities.  As Peggy (Amy Adams), the Master’s wife, says about Freddie, “Perhaps he’s past help—or insane.”  I think this statement best describes this film.  We are introduced to the hopeless, crude case of Freddie Quell, and we watch him flounder around as he clutches at his flask and lets the tide take him to his destination.