** Another great review from Fresh Air producer, Ann Marie Baldonado:
When I go to a film festival (which isn’t that often), and I am seeing sometimes 5 or 6 movies in a day, I wonder if the patterns I see, or the common themes I notice from movie to movie, are real, or if my taxed brain is just making the connections when they aren’t there. But some of the patterns are true. For example, on my second day at the festival, in almost every film I saw, an adult child was searching for his (or her) real father (On the Road, Stories We Tell, Imogene, A Place Beyond the Pines). And throughout the festival, so many of the films I saw seemed to be about men unable to control their impulses, be they violent or sexual or both. The film that I found to be most mesmerizing about how this topic and one tries to live with one’s inner demons (and where these demons come from to begin with), is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.
The Master follows the story of Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), a naval officer returning from World War II, with little idea of what to do with himself. You get the feeling that he was volatile and twitchy to begin with, but the war has certainly taken its toll; it’s written across his face full of crevices, and his constantly hunched back. He floats from job to job, taking photographs in one of the country’s emerging department stores, picking cabbage alongside Filipino immigrants, generally wandering around the country, getting into fights, making odd alcoholic concoctions for himself, laced with gasoline and paint thinner, that seem to burn away at his insides, so that something is literally, not just figuratively eating at him.
Things change for Freddie when he happens upon Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), an intellectual and religious leader who is the head of an emerging spiritual organization. The Cause, as the movement is called, tries to help followers master their emotions, leaving their regrets, failures and all mental barriers behind. Dodd is searching for how humans can overcome their darker instincts and animal behaviors, and he has certainly met his match when he meets Freddie, who seems to be all instinct and animal.
Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams) at first is happy that Freddie has inspired her husband to write, to find new techniques to help this lost drifter. But Freddie’s violent, erratic tendencies get to be too much for Peggy; Freddie doesn’t seem to be responding to any of The Cause’s teachings or exercises, and she thinks they should just let Freddie go. But Lancaster still wants to help Freddie because if he can’t save Freddie, who can he save?
Freddie’s journeys and struggles are beautiful to behold onscreen— whether we are on a naval ship, in a cabbage field, or in a living room where followers of The Cause are meeting; much of this is due to Anderson’s decision to film in 65mm. This technique was most widely used in the 1950s, when The Master is set, so the look of the film is bright, fuzzily precise, and historically fitting. As Anderson said, using these cameras and film just “felt right” and it translates on the screen, and will hopefully somehow translate well when shown in 35 mm or digital when it hits regular theaters around the country.
Anderson has consistently said that while there are similarities between his character, Lancaster Dodd and L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology, the film is not about Scientology, and now after seeing the film, I see that he is right. The Master doesn’t explain how the religion was started, it isn’t an exposé about how followers were conned or misled. It’s true that at one point in the film Lancaster Dodd’s son (Landry from Friday Night Lights Jesse Plemons), says “he is making it up as he goes along,” but that is not the point of the story— showing Dodd to be a fraud. In fact, The Master is almost a sympathetic portrait of a man who is struggling, trying to find a way for himself and for his “followers” to make sense of their pasts and move forward, unencumbered.
Freddie is such a flawed, flawed man, and one gets the feeling that no amount of “work” can really get to the root cause of his demons and frailties— was it a lost love? Lack of parental love? The savagery of war? We never know, and although there are hints, we are kept at an emotional distance. I left The Master feeling unresolved and still searching, but okay with that, because the exploration was still so beautiful and thoughtful.
I noticed in the official press materials about The Master, Anderson says “My father came out of World War II and was restless his whole life.” I guess I can add another movie to the list of films about a child’s search for his father.