The Master opens ominously: a 70 MM close-up of Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) peering warily out from under his marine helmet, tightly framed top and bottom by two horizontal slabs of ship’s steel. He looks like a man under siege, from within and without.
Freddy is a World War II Marine veteran battered by at least two types of trauma—the battlefield kind (which we don’t see) and the bootleg gin kind created by his own special distillation, made with fusil oil (which we see plenty of). There may be more, but clearly Freddy is so damaged that he seems trapped in a curdling hallucination. He’s like a tangled poisoned tree root, stunted, and twisted. His point of view is dangerously unreliable.
Freddy is so freakish, even other misfits shun him. Alone in the world, he drifts along like an adrift undersea mine, rising to explode the second it’s bumped by a sleepy passing ship.
But Freddy doesn’t remain alone forever. Freddy finds a direction of sorts when he stows away on a luxury yacht and from there, falls under the snaky, avuncular spell of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffmann). There’s something folkloric about this first encounter: As Freddy enters Dodd’s life, Dodd enters Freddy’s mind, like a wizard making magic. Dodd’s world is a spider’s trap.
Freddy finds direction, but it’s Dodd direction, given by a man who loves control. Freddy’s vulnerability allows Dodd to mold and seduce him into one of his most trusted associates. Dodd’s point of view is even more unreliable than Freddy’s. That’s because Dodd is a con man, the self-styled visionary founder of a cult known as The Cause. (Its echoes of Scientology I leave to other hands.)
The Master follows the troubled love story of this odd male couple, acolyte and master, over several years, as one struggles to find meaning and stability and the other calmly, deliberately uses him to seek power wherever he can find it.
The Master plays in a low-key rumbling clandestine key (helped by Jonny Greenwood’s excellent score). I have never seen what amounts to a character study presented on the oceanic canvas of 70MM, a ratio usually associated with Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, and other grand old-style Hollywood epics. It was like seeing Grant Wood’s American Gothic displayed on an IMAX screen. Blowing it up seemed to water down the drama. The small screen may be a more suitable venue for The Master.
When I saw it, the movie’s drama felt muffled and distant. It swells with threats that rarely break the surface, except for frantic bouts of violence. It sometimes angers never grabs and shocks, despite the superb work of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and the strenuous efforts of Joaquin Phoenix. I share the view of some other reviewers on this—a little heavy on the acting, though I found Phoenix’s concave posture throughout memorably painful. I hope he had a good chiropractor handy.
Freddy beats hell out of any poor fool who questions the Master, but even when faced with Dodd’s perfidy, he never really rebels, not even when Dodd gets them both thrown in jail—the most explosive sequence—nor when Freddie is taking Dodd’s portrait photo. (Trouble here is foreshadowed early on, when Freddie, working as a department store portrait photographer, attacks a customer who bears an odd resemblance to Dodd)
Freddy’s rebellion finally takes passive-aggressive form when he steals Dodd’s motorcycle and vanishes over the desert horizon. Years pass before we find him asleep in a movie theater (showing a Casper the Ghost cartoon), dreaming that Dodd has called him on the phone to ask Freddy to rejoin him in England. Freddy follows his dream, only to find that Dodd (and the other cult members, including co-leader Amy Adams) want nothing more to do with him. Freddy is too weird and unsettling, even for cultists.
The film ends on a peculiar upbeat note. Even Freddy, it seems, is beyond Dodd’s quest for absolute control. In the end, all that Freddy needed was to get laid. The film ends with two contrasting images—Freddy in bed with a barroom wench and a flashback to his days on leave on a World War II beach, lying beside the grotesque image of a woman built of beach sand, the only kind of woman this oddball has been able to relate to. Real sex with a real woman brings him both a little freedom and a little intimacy, probably as much as his fragile soul can handle.
The Master has a studied, detached, sometimes dolorous, air, similar actually to Lawrence, which occasionally sees its hero through the same distant lens, finding him wanting. Portents arise but ever arrive. In one episode, Dodd drags Freddy to an abandoned desert mine to retrieve Dodd’s terribly top-secret life’s work. Both of them are armed like Old West gunfighters. I slid to the edge of my seat, expecting a hapless hiker to fatally stumble on the two of them. I don’t know if Dodd would have killed a passing stranger, but Freddy would have. The whole film tends to drive around moments like these. It promises, then and boldly delivers something else, though it may not always be compelling.
Nowhere was this detachment more apparent than in the punishment exercise, where Dodd forces Freddie through a humiliating series of exercises, among them scampering like a whipped puppy endlessly back and forth. We see Freddie through Dodd’s eyes as he stands to one side, intently taking notes, like a scientist watching a lab rat. It’s reasonable to say that Dodd is honing his techniques for future converts to his confidence game.
And Lancaster is first and foremost a con man, one who plays a lifelong con. Whether the con man actually believes what he says (unlike true religious leaders who will sacrifice their comforts and even their lives) is disputed among crime experts, Dodd has conjured the perfect con for this own needs, namely power, power achieved through forming a cult, closed off from the rest of the world, walled in by a poisonous combination of fake mystique and impervious circular reason, all tightly centered on, and controlled on, by the Master.
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield