Early on in THE MASTER, we see a saleswoman at a department store weaving through the sales floor modelling a coat. She approaches customers, showing off the posh apparel, suggesting they cough up the mere $49.95 to have one of their own. In its way, the scene is a metaphor for the sort of people who claim to have answers through faith, discipline, and devotion. They too approach the unsuspecting, trumpet goodness, and declare for a mere price it can be acquired. One has to ask themselves, just how much they really need what’s being sold…and whether it’s worth the price on the tag.
THE MASTER begins by introducing us to Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Freddy is a sailor returning to America after serving in the Pacific Theatre during WWII. Freddy is a drunk of the highest order, one that crafts his own spirits using ingredients such a paint thinner, photo fixer, and other such chemicals. After unsuccessfully trying to hold a few stand-up jobs, he stumbles on to a boat in the San Francisco harbour.
The boat happens to be chartered by The Cause, a new religious movement. When Freddy is discovered, he is brought to The Master (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Master quickly sums up Freddy’s boorish condition, seeing his state with a sense of pity and grace. He offers Freddy a chance to work on the ship he has stowed away upon, and further, invites him to learn more about The Cause and its methods that allow for personal growth. Freddy accepts, quickly becoming one of Master’s favorite pupils.
However, not all is well. For starters, Freddy isn’t taking well to the teachings of The Cause – something Master’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) sees better than most. He continues with his drinking, and never completely gives himself over to the teachings. On the other side of the aisle, Master isn’t doing so well either. Master – whose given name is Lancaster Dodd – is under constant scrutiny from naysayers who believe he has no true answers.
All of this leaves us to wonder whether Freddy can be helped, and whether Master can truly help anybody.
THE MASTER is a film that wants to be both grand and subtle at the same time. It wants to play itself out on a large scale, using long takes and a massive canvas. It also wants to be nuanced and never give its actors the sort of grand, showy scene that involves milkshakes or frogs raining from the sky. Seeing a film that wants to have its cake and eat it too leads to a hard time connecting in the experience. However, when the lights come up, and the hours turn into days, THE MASTER stays with us. We find ourselves wanting to come back to it, and that sort of hunger is what denotes the film as a success.
The films greatest arsenal are its three leads. Phillip Seymour Hoffman can bring this sort of performance in his sleep, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. He has to stand up and embody pure persuasion – if he doesn’t, the film fails. As Master, Seymour Hoffman is outstanding, both in the way he brings other characters in and in the way he beats them down. Joaquin Phoenix (seemingly back from the dead after the wild experiment of I’M STILL HERE) plays much of this film looking like the gnarled root of a large oak tree. He hunches, he scowls, he fights, and he stews. He goes head to head with Seymour Hoffman and proves a worthy opponent every. single. time.
And then there’s Amy Adams…giving what is easily the best performance of her career. Anytime she is in front of the greater populace of The Cause, she embodies the loving wife. She warmly brings word of good news, and sits dutifully just-right-of-centre. However, its behind closed doors that Peggy’s true colours show, and Adams’ talent comes out. In these private moments, in front of just the inner circle, she shows that she is anything but merciful. Peggy wants The Cause to rise in prominence, and Master to succeed, and should either one of those goals seem to be slipping from grasp, she tightens her grip violently. Both Freddy and Master might seem like dominant personalities, but sit either one down in front of Peggy and she will show you real dominance.
Being witness to three amazing performances is nice, but it doesn’t certify a great film. What makes THE MASTER a great film is its portrayal of faith and susceptibility. The Cause could represent many movements of faith throughout history. What THE MASTER wants to point out is that when it comes to matters of faith, that we should all proceed with caution. It’s possible that through spiritual reflection and ritual, that we are able to do many things we couldn’t otherwise do (free ourselves from sickness, for example). Or it’s further possible that isn’t what happens, but a very good speaker just has us believing otherwise. Or it’s just as likely that what’s happening is that we are so happy that we have pleased a surrogate parent, that our relief brings on a wave of endorphins, and that fools us into a better headspace.
This is what THE MASTER patiently - very patiently – wants to tell us. That faith and devotion, especially to a single living person, is such a thorny path. It’s a path that can be manipulated at will by the leader, and one that preys upon the impressionable. It sparks conversations that can easily be turned into arguments, and spawn friendships that can be discarded as easily as paper towel.
THE MASTER is a personal journey, and like any personal journey it comes with peaks and valleys. It surrounds itself with a very dense perimeter, one that will likely leave many people turning away in frustration. However, once one finds the gate and walks through, they are rewarded with something special. It’s a cautionary tale about the lives we lead, and a wish that we can all become the captains of our own voyage.