The Master – Movie Review

It is said, most men live in quiet desperation, in doubt, silently burning. Faith is the opposite of doubt, and faith involves total, unquestioning submission to a master. But that submission can be to multiple facets of what we call faith. It could be submission to a metaphysical alternate reality, to the day to day praxis and rituals, to the promise or hope that comes with faith, or to the brotherhood or family like belonging that faith provides. In a changing world where a man’s existential doubts unhinges him, faith can be defined in one word – home. But to get home, as Bob Dylan once put it, be it the devil or be it the lord, one has to serve somebody. One has to have a master. Or not? This question lies at the heart of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film starring Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. This film asks some very disturbing questions, and provides no easy answers. It is a tough movie to watch, dragging and confusing at times, and is not easy to understand. Not one of those vulnerable movies which you can take behind a local bar and get pregnant. I will not watch it again, in that, it is no “No Country for Old Men“.

Some folks might like this movie, some might call it a mystic esoteric classic, and some might plain hate it. All these would be based on their interpretations of themselves, than their interpretation of the movie, because “The Master” has a stubborn opacity which makes interpreting the dynamics of the story very open or closed based on one’s own way of explaining things.

Story: This is a story of two men, and the beginning of a religion. Loosely based on very early stages of Scientology, one can only imagine the potent minefields when early philosophy of a religion evolves, as the “Master’s” son himself puts it “He’s making all this up as he goes along… you don’t see that?”. There is one Mr.Rushdie who can speak well about explaining early stages of a religion. The two men, Freddie and Lancaster Dodd, are remarkable characters, and their friendship or rather the bond they share defines the movie. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie, who in the opening scenes of the film is seen dry humping a sand woman and publicly masturbating into the ocean in a tropical seashore somewhere in World War II’s Pacific theater. Whether the war damaged him, or whether he was damaged from the start, we’ll never know, but Freddie is unhinged, sexually restless, visibly depressed, socially awkward, and not so successful in taming his angry, violent streak. Freddie cannot fit in anywhere, and as he runs from one pitch stop to another, he comes across the charming, charismatic, warm Lancaster Dodd.

Dodd: You seem so familiar to me.
Freddie : Wha what do you do?
Dodd: I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher… but above all I am a man. Hopelessly Inquisitive man, just like you.

Lancaster Dodd is the founder and high priest of a new religion that is at the verge of taking off. He has his share of ardent followers, and skeptics. Dodd himself is in the process of “making up” a philosophy for his religion. Dodd and Freddie develop an instant liking for one another, more man to man, than intellectual. The new religion believes in raising man to his true potential by removing the toxicity and trauma from his past, and the practice involves sessions of ‘remembering’ one’s prenatal past. The Dodd family sees in ‘curing’ Freddie, proving a point for their new religion, and Freddie becomes a believer, a very intense believer at that. As the religion grows bigger, and evolves, cracks set in. Each of the characters, the master Dodd, the disciple Freddie, the master’s wife, the master’s benefactors, all of them come into terms with their own, and their “cause’s” limitations.

The master and the disciple part ways, when Dodd realizes that in Freddie, he has hit a wall, and maybe his methods will not work on Freddie who will serve no master. Dodd says “If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.”

Good:

1. Lancaster Dodd and Freddie: Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman mesmerize with competing performances which must in all probability give Phoenix and Hoffman academy nominations for best actor. Hoffman enthralls in every role he takes up (even that tiny one in Big Lebowski), but this will go down as one of his best. As the master, who is charming, calm, lively, and at the same time conflicted within, Hoffman keeps our sanity in place, while Freddie’s animal instincts and anger destroys half the set, and keeps us on tenterhook on when he will explode again. The two characters are well acted out, jury is still out on whether they are well developed. Even when the master realizes his methods are not working on Freddie, he does not hide his personal need to be around Freddie. Dodd says “I want to get you on a slow boat to China, all by yourself, alone.”

2. The script & cinematography: is not an easy one. It is muddled, and a little opaque. That said, it asks some very pertinent questions on how people relate to ideas and other people, without really asking those questions. The movie takes its own sweet time to ask these questions though. Cinematography stands out with some of the more brilliant scenes seen in recent years, giving immense space to characters with a wide angle view, whether they are running from a fight or racing a motor bike or piloting a boat through San Francisco Bay, while handing down some post card perfect movie scenes.

Bad:

1. It’s stressful: The movie needs you to think and connect the dots constantly, hang on to every word the characters utter, and takes its own sweet time to drag its ass to the next scene. I slept off twice during the movie, and when I awoke, all the characters were in the same scene saying the same things. It is a brilliant, cerebral work of art which exploits the cinematic medium to its hilt, but it is so boring and vague, that one might end up depressed at the pointlessness of going to movies.

Verdict: If “The Master” turns out to be a cult classic, it will be one of those classics I do not get. Like “There will be blood”. One of the classics I get is Terrence Mallik’s “Tree of Life”, and this one is nowhere close. Going by Rolling Stones review of the movie, it seems to be a sure shot at academy awards next year. What Rolling Stones does not seem to realize is that, there is a very frustrated man in hollywood, and he is very pissed at not winning an Oscar in a while. He was so frustrated, he teamed up with Michael Bay to just burn expensive cars and trucks. He is making the film of his life, and plans to launch it in November. If “Lincoln” does not sweep the academy awards in March, Steven Spielberg will burn down the Kodak Theater.

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