The fact that The Master was written and directed by the same person, Paul Thomas Anderson, shows that he has something important to say. The film is set in the ‘40s, and the disillusioned attitude of living in the West during tumultuous years of world war play as a background influence in the movie, but the quirky, dry humour avoids WWII’s melancholy.
The film’s opening scenes are idiosyncratic, strange, and without much dialogue. It’s well suited to the eccentric characers, as is the music. The soundtrack is so free of seriousness that the audience might think they’re watching a comedy. But there is a serious question at hand: the question of faith. How seriously do you take yours, and do you believe in religion, science, or politics? These questions become confused as even trying to figure out the film’s genre is difficult.
But the acting is what stands out the most. Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the Master himself, successfully portrays a powerful yet disturbed individual. Hannah Arendt, a political theorist known for her insights on totalitarianism, once warned that we ought to be cautious of those gaining power having a conflicted personal history. Hoffman demonstrates this in intricate detail. Throughout the film, he is charismatic, charming, and, above all, believably sympathetic. And yet there lurks something mysterious underneath the façade, and as the story unfolds, we learn that “the Cause,” Anderson’s metaphor for Ron L. Hubbard’s Scientology, is a delusional attempt for a very basic human need.
After his shameless tirades as an aspiring rapper, Joaquin Phoenix truly does shine as the foolish Freddie Quell. A drifter who is totally ignorant to his own buffoonery, Freddie uses his service in the Navy to travel. He looks for work wherever he goes, picks fights in absurdly hilarious ways, and has the audacity to explicitly ask women to have sex with him. But there is something lovable about the childishness of his character. Phoenix plays the drifter, the jaded American, a product of warring exhaustion without value or ambition in pursuit of the very same need as the Master.
Throughout the film, I was reminded of lectures by Dr. David Penner from the course “Cults in North America.” In short, every human being needs love. There is a cultish instinct inside all of us to band together and belong to a group, and don’t all groups, be they religious, political, and so on, function in cultish ways? In the end, the way to live a fulfilling life is as simple as saying “I love you.” But either our pride or fear of appearing vulnerable get in the way, and become cause— the Cause— for straying from reality.
The Master and Freddie connect like brothers because they are both lost in their own ways, looking to the wrong things for spiritual fulfillment. But they do love each other, and fight like siblings reminiscent of Biblical archetypes Cain and Abel and Jacob and Esau. They are opposite extremes of the same bonding force. Freddie, as the fool, and the Master, as the intellectual, are both looking for the same thing yet neither have the courage to say it.
I highly recommend watching The Master. It’s expressive, profound and a stimulating feast of insight.