The Master tells the story of naval veteran Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix) who comes home from the high seas of World War II suffering with PTSD and an extreme ‘homebrew’ alcoholic disposition. After a public outburst in his new job as a department store photographer, Freddie goes AWOL and eventually stumbles across a docked ship, which he boards, and meets Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Mr. Dodd is the charismatic leader of a quasi-cult-cum-psychoanalytical-group and he takes a shine to Freddie and his homebrew moonshine. Freddie, being entirely lost and in need of guidance and help – not to mention love – happily joins the group but then the struggle between his aggressive need for autonomy and his desire for community ensues.
The film is masterfully shot and extremely well-acted by both Phoenix and Hoffman but be warned, it creeps along at the pace of a snail. This slow pace is simultaneously part of its charm and, in a small way, its downfall. There is no doubt that the long and beautiful shots are meditative, immersive and mesmerising but, at times, the in-depth camera study of the visual side of the characters occurs without the aid of in-depth character development in the intellectual or verbal sense, i.e. without genuinely smart, progressive and insightful dialogue. In other words, visual depth is not matched by script depth (which is surprising as the film purports to be both intellectual and astute).
In perhaps the most ironic of twists, although Lancaster’s cult promotes freedom and transformation, everybody is essentially the same by the end of the film as they were at the start. Freddie’s trauma has been integrated somewhat but he’s still as impulsive and free-spirited as he was to begin with. But, in it’s own way, this is a interesting sentiment; i.e., even though we all struggle to mature and adapt to outer precepts throughout the course of our lives, in the end, we are who we are and, in some fundamental sense, we can never be anything more or less than our personal but enduringly unique selves (however much we strive or long to be part of the ‘world’ or ‘community’ in some larger, idealised sense).
In short, it’s well worth a watch…but definitely a film for the male psyche. Women and feminists of all genders be warned: there is full frontal female nudity – without the male equivalent – as well as one-dimensional female character portrayal throughout.
Verdict: One thumb (very high) up, one thumb (halfway) down.