‘Free winds and no tyranny for you, Freddie, sailor of the seas. You pay no rent, free to go where you please. Then go, go to that landless latitude and good luck. If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first in the history of the world.’ Lancaster Dodd
Chilling isn’t it, how Dodd describes that we are all servants to a master, a master who brings us into this world, who feeds us, who clothes us, who gives us knowledge and who strikes fear into us. There are many masters in our lives, they can be alive, dead or celestial, but they are there.
The film The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth feature length film, and stars Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell a navy veteran who suffers from alcoholism and post-traumatic stress – he is a casualty of war. He abandoned the love of his life Doris (though he has had quite a few lovers since) when he took to the seas and has never seen her since he returned. His mother was sent to a psychiatric hospital and the navy doctor assumes Freddie should be too due to his erratic behaviour.
Nevertheless, he is released into society and takes up odd jobs including being a photographer and a farmhand. On a night of heavy drinking he boards a boat with lively guests and joins in the festivities. In the morning he wakes to find the boat was in fact full of a group called The Cause led by Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is a charismatic and at times intimidating figure who takes Freddie under his wing and acts as a mentor of sort, he claims he has known him from another life.
The Cause are a cult. Dodd claims to have techniques that allow people to be cured of diseases and leukaemia by recalling their past lives (under hypnosis) and when challenged by scientists he gets abrupt in anger. Freddie likes Dodd and buys into his ideas, especially after he is put through one of his sessions. When scientists question or challenge Dodd, Freddie assaults them, although Dodd disagrees with the beatings, he is secretly enjoys them – this relationship of ‘bodyguard’ continues throughout their friendship.
However, Freddie soon realises that Dodd isn’t all who he claims to be, as he seems to be making things up as he goes along, such changing the word recall to imagine during his sessions. This makes Freddie leave. He goes in search of Doris, only to find that she has married and moved on. Freddie tries to move on to, until he receives a call from Dodd – who has tracked him down. Dodd asks Freddie to visit him in England, can Freddie ever be free from The Cause?
The film had its controversy when released, due to the similarities between it and The Church of Scientology – whom allegedly tried to ban the release. It is a controversial subject as there are a number of high-profile cases of cults that have existed over the years. Many attribute cults being outside of Abrahamic religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam and other religions like Sikhism, Hinduism and Buddhism (by the way I am not saying religions are cults).
All cults are led by a charming, articulate and dominating figure who keeps sole power (including requesting permissions to marry, change jobs etc) and knowledge (such as a book, which they have written) and demands ultimate loyalty (leaving can have consequences). Cults also require members to have less or next to no critical thinking and questioning of the leader is prohibited. It is also common to perform repetitive tasks and practice mind-altering techniques. Strange as I write this, I notice the TV and the politicians on the news.
I liked this film, but it is not my favourite Paul Thomas Anderson film, as I think it is gratuitous in its subject matter, there are also some scenes which could have worked better without the need for nudity (can’t believe I said that, think I am getting old) and some scenes which don’t have a payoff or lack the punch. The cinematography however is exquisite, Anderson filmed in 65mm format using Panavision 65 camera which if this is re-released would be great to catch at the cinema.
The music by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood helps with the tone of the film. The supporting cast is great and includes other Oscar winners (apart from Hoffman and Phoenix) Rami Malek and Laura Dern and nominee Amy Adams.
However, this is a duel between Phoenix and Hoffman (both of whom are on top form) and who controls and influences who.