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In the short time P.T. Anderson's The Master has been rolling out across North American markets, thousands upon thousands of words have already been written on the film. Anderson is one of those directors who balances the fine line between entertainment and what some would call "film art," a director whose work is reminiscent of the 70s when filmmaking was as much about entertainment as it was about the process. This process has never disappeared but it's fleeting in Hollywood.

Over the years, Anderson has been moving farther away from the mainstream to focus on projects which are a little more difficult to sell to the general public. 2007's There Will Be Blood was a critical darling with moderate box office success but in comparison to that film, which features some of the grandest show boating of the last few years, performances that overshadow the film's many moments of solitude, The Master is by comparison, a slow moving glacier, one that ever so slowly makes its way to land, leaving bits of ice in its wake and occasionally meandering into a fast moving ship.

Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie Quell, a war veteran returned home and attempting to incorporate himself into society. A stint as a photographer is only the first in a series of jobs which all end in disaster before Freddie finds himself aboard a ship headed to New York. It's here his life takes a drastic turn and the angry and troubled alcoholic finds himself on the brink of personal change. The ship is commanded by Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic leader of a new religious movement referred to as "the Cause," who takes a shinning to the carefree Freddie.

As Dodd and his followers, who refer to their leader as "Master," make their way across the country, running into trouble at nearly every turn, we begin to see the teachings of "the Cause" and Master takes a particular interest in Freddie, walking him through the processing/auditing system which Master and his followers believe will help individuals discover and eventually let go their past lives and return the individual to a state of "perfection," even claiming the process cures disease.

Disease. Freddie is diseased and Master feels a need, perhaps a fatherly one or perhaps something to do with his subconscious connection to Freddie (in their second meeting, the first the audience is privy to, Master makes a point to mention that he remembers Freddie from somewhere, a question that is repeated throughout the film) but he sees a man crippled by fear and anger, one who finds solace in the magical concoctions he creates. In essence, he finds the perfect candidate for "the Cause," a man who once cured would be the perfect poster child for the movement. Failure is not an option which explains Master's continued attempts to save Freddie, even when it looks like Freddie is beyond and uninterested help. It certainly helps explain why the Dodds continue to allow Freddie in their inner sanctum: when he's cured, he'll be more pliable if he sees himself as part of the family.

Eventually Freddie takes off but the man that leaves is not the Freddie that we first meet. The new Freddie is calmer, more sedate and though drinking is still a vice, he seems to have come to terms with his life and even made some positive progress. When the Cause comes knocking for a second time, Freddie is ready to re-commit himself but Mrs. Dodd isn't convinced that he's ready and in a particularly heartbreaking scene, Master bids farewell to his friend for the last time. The scene is powerful for a number of reasons (Hoffman's performance being just one of them) but it's particularly interesting when one notes how desperate he is to save his friendship with Freddie but is essentially told he can't do so by his wife. It re-iterates, in conjunction with a few other scenes in the movie, the power Mrs. Dodd has over the family and the movement and it's crystal clear that it is she who keeps the ship afloat. Master may be the face of the Cause and he may well be the man behind the ideas but Peggy holds the ultimate power. She controls Master and by default everyone else as well.

At the end of the scene, Master, deflated, asks Freddie to let him know if he figures out how to live life without being a slave. It seems to me that he's referring not only to the control his wife and his followers hold over him but also that he feels trapped by his own teachings. He strives for release and clarity but finds himself shackled by his own ideas and the expectations of his followers. It's a final goodbye not only to Freddie, the friend, but also to freedom.

Much has been made of the fact that the master plays off of Scientology's early years, a fact that Anderson has verified, but rather than vilifying the teachings of the Cause, Master's teachings do seem to be helping people, even if the methodology comes across as quackery. Between There Will Be Blood and The Master it feels as though Anderson is trying to parse the idea of religion. Here, Master's teachings are, by some including his own son, deemed made up mumbo jumbo but at some point, all religions have suffered from similar attacks. In his own way, Anderson is playing devil's advocate, on the one hand calling the entire thing bullshit and on the other showing a man, in this case Freddie, who benefits from his time with the movement, even if he eventually steps away from it. It may well come down to if you believe in something enough you're bound to find solace in it but Freddie doesn't fully believe and yet his time with Master and the Cause change him to the very core.

Nothing of Anderson's The Master is left to chance. Each scene is carefully edited and arranged to not simply move the plot but to provide some insight into the characters and with so many secondary players, it's not always clear who is at the centre of the scene. This is obviously the story of Freddie Quell, it begins and ends with him, but along the way we're introduced to a myriad of characters and occasionally, the story leaves Freddie on the outside, and we see the inner workings of the Dodd family.

Every scene can, and will likely, be dissected and analyzed to draw some larger meaning and The Master is so dense with information, it more than lives up to the challenge. Some will find the picture bloated and over long and at over two hours, it certainly covers a lot of ground, but there isn't one single scene that feels frivolous or unnecessary, even if some don't immediately appear important. With its subtlety, The Master is even more difficult to break through than There Will Be Blood but each revelation brings with it a new reading into the story, easily crowning The Master the jewel of this year's "thinking movies." It can certainly be enjoyed passively but Anderson's film demands discussion and discussion it shall have.

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laura smith (7 years ago) Reply

Thanks for a great review. This movie bears watching more than once. It's. Interesting that every reviewer see something different in this movie. On thing that I got was that Winn Manchester (ie Lynn Massachusetts) represents a grown-up Doris. Freddie has come full circle. He has quelled some of his rage and found some measure of peace in the present.

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