Film Review: The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson

Leaving the theater after viewing Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master I overheard a woman say to her companions, “I don’t really have to understand a movie in order to appreciate it.”

There is a lot to appreciate in this film. It’s beautifully photographed and masterfully directed. The dialogue is crisp. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Joaquin Phoenix are memorable in performances that will surely be award-winning when Oscar time rolls around. I can’t recall a movie in recent years for which genuine appreciation is the appropriate response.

Centuries ago Saints Augustine and Anselm helped the world appreciate the importance of theology as “faith seeking understanding.” Anderson’s film has me thinking that great art calls forth something similar. Call it appreciation seeking understanding.

The Master is a complicated film. World War II is coming to an end and Americans are adjusting to a new time and a new role in the world. Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Freddie Quill, is leaving the Navy. He’s a native of Lynn, Massachusetts and in love with an underage young girl. We see him on an island in the South Pacific, in California’s Central Valley as a farmworker and starting a brief career as a department-store photographer.

One evening in 1950 he wanders onto a ship with members of a small cult-like group called “The Cause,” where he comes in contact with the Dodd family and Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). They spend time together drinking a lethal concoction of Freddie’s invention whose ingredients include paint thinner. Thus begins an unlikely and complicated relationship that is at the heart of the film. Freddie becomes part of the Dodd family in a complicated mix of roles: part enforcer of orthodoxy, part protégé, part would-be lover, part therapy patient for Lancaster Dodd and The Cause. Dodd’s wife, Peggy (played by Amy Adams) grows increasingly skeptical of both men, though she’s the ultimate true believer in The Cause and its principal defender. (She’s also the first person I’d want to interview if I were asked to figure out the dynamics of this odd little community.)

Rarely have I seen a film in which so much is explored but left without resolution. Why are the two men drawn together in the first place? How do so many tolerate the ongoing patterns of seduction and abandonment within the Dodd family and among its followers? Who is the master and what, really is the cause?

The Master cries out for theological analysis and reflection. First of all, at its heart are questions of alienation. Paul Tillich would have had a field day with it, though I can’t imagine what he would say! Second, we don’t learn a lot about the content of The Cause’s belief system but we observe enough to wonder why people would be drawn to it. Lancaster Dodd fashions himself a scientist and The Cause presents a method for self-analysis but Dodd seems to be making things up along the way, which Freddie sees more clearly than most. Third, without naming them as such, the film poses all sorts of questions about appropriate boundaries, professional, spiritual and human. Philip Seymour Hoffman is brilliant in capturing the master’s charismatic ability to draw persons into his web while suspending critical judgment. Freddie comes closest to being able to see what is going on, and in the end he is broken by it. Or is he?

In short, I appreciated The Master. I’m not altogether certain I understood it – or, in the end, that I liked it.