“The Master is one of those films where, as a viewer, you’re sitting there
wondering the whole time where this is going. And at the end, you’re still
wondering if there was a point to it all, other than an intensive character
study of some very off beat personalities. The fact that it’s post-World War
II doesn’t really mean much except that we get to deal with post-traumatic
stress syndrome of veterans as some kind of aberration: unmanly, somehow,
rather than a recognized psychological malady that affects even the staunchest
returning soldiers. We also get to examine this strange little cult without
the undue pressure of today’s instantaneous media. People were a lot freer,
in those days, to be certifiably whacko without undue outside interference.
For better and for worse.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) didn’t get released from the Navy
immediately after World War II. They recognized there was something wrong with
him, but the military couldn’t figure him out. They gave him Rorschach
tests, the standard psychological testing procedure of the day, and he just
told them every ink blot reminded him of genitalia. After a while they quit
asking him. When he was finally released, he picked up some odd jobs, like
photography in a department store, then picking fruit in a field, then as a
seaman on board a ship, but in every instance he managed to find the violent
confrontation, as if he’s just a volcano ready to erupt at any moment.
Though he has a correspondence sweetheart somewhere on the East Coast, he
can’t quite bring himself to go see her, because he feels he’s not ready
yet. Besides, she was very young, and though he idealized her, he somehow
understood that he didn’t quite view her as “real”, and sure enough, she
gets tired waiting for his promised return, which makes his isolation a
splendid self-fulfilling prophecy.
About this time he runs into a self-proclaimed healer, Lancaster Dodd (Philip
Seymour Hoffman), who mesmerizes needy and gullible audiences with his unique
blend of charisma, certitude, swagger, elocution, and curious mixture of time
travel theory, voodoo medicine, hypnosis, and power of persuasion. His
disciples are supposed to attend his seminars, of course, but also buy his
books. His lovely young wife (Amy Adams) is actually as determinedly demented
as he is, and in the privacy of their personal quarters, flashes a startling
psycho-sexual manipulation of his bravado. Freddie falls under the spell of
“The Master,” in part because they relate to each other on the level of
moonshine shots and Kool unfiltered cigarettes. But also because they can talk
“man-to-man” in private, and then publicly Freddie can be self-appointed
disciple, gopher, groupie, even security guard.
Yes, this is a volatile and unpredictable mix. Director Paul Thomas Anderson
at one moment shows us a searingly intensive counseling encounter, and the
next moment we may be frolicking in the drawing room, the men in suits and the
dancing women, both young and old…..completely naked? Or did we just imagine
that? Yes, there’s both sex and nudity, but not really much love here. More
like desperate need meeting shallow lust, pretending to be playful but barely
disguising the naked isolation.
This is the kind of movie that the critics will love, and the genteel public
will wonder where the entertainment value is. It may indeed be considered at
Oscar time, but then, so was “Monster’s Ball,” and that was more
shocking and off-putting than fun and satisfying, as well.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving,