The Master


06 Tuesday 06th November 2012

Set against the tumultuous backdrop of post-World War II America, The Master opens with scenes of young naval veterans returning home in peacetime. Enter Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a wild, volatile individual who, given the early shots showing of him undergoing government-controlled medication, therapy and Rorschach tests, is suffering post-traumatic stress from his time in combat. Back in the USA, Freddie first endeavours to get a civilian job as a department store photographer, but soon ends up drifting aimlessly in a nomadic haze of sex, fisticuffs and the addictive influence of dubious alcoholic concoctions. 

Enter Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the articulate, powerfully charismatic figure who gives The Master its name. Upon first meeting Freddie (and subsequently charmed by his ability to mix moonshine “potions”), the Master soon takes him on as a protégé, adopting him into his growing fold of family and believers who follow as he travels, spreading word of his Cause. Dismissing science’s findings, Dodd proclaims that all human ailments – even cancer – can be cured through “processing”, a series of strange, forceful therapies involving repetitive interrogation and hypnosis. In this way, a person can supposedly recall his or her past lives, and unlock their true potential.

This, of course, bears uncanny echoes of Scientology and its leader L. Ron Hubbard, but Anderson is not setting out to dissect this – more, use it as a gateway into more open-ended questioning.

Freddie and Dodd work as a pair, operating much as yin and yang, playing off each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Where Freddie is crude in his speech, Dodd is compellingly persuasive, and while Dodd can be weak and insecure, Freddie is impulsive and quick to action, even if that generally involves violence. However, as is first hinted at in Dodd’s son’s advice to Freddie (“He’s making all this up as he goes along. You don’t see that?”) Dodd’s doctrine is revealed to be nothing more than the fanciful ideas of a man intoxicated by his own ego, playing on the insecurities of a generation looking for answers and meaning in a post-war world.

The film is unique in that it was shot on rare 65mm film to create the saturated feel of classic '50s movies – and us lucky press pundits got to see one of the few 70mm projections in the UK. Unfortunately, as we sat, quietly enthralled by the vivid lushness of the opening scenes, the picture suddenly died, with the cinema management citing "technical difficulties". Upon being told that we had to watch The Master in plain old digital (the horror!), splutterings of outrage abounded, and several journalists even walked out. Ever seen a hoard of incensed film critics? It's a mildly alarming sight. In all seriousness though, judging from the scenes we did manage to see, I would highly recommend seeing the 70mm version if you're able to.

Be clear though; this is not an easy film to watch. Its 143 minutes can drag to the point of tediousness, and while there are scenes that crackle with intensity and dramatic impact, there are just as many that wander, apparently as directionless and lost as the characters themselves. Fans of Anderson’s last film There Will Be Blood might be disappointed in the frequent lack of action, in addition to the perplexing, oblique script that often veers into the muddy waters of self-indulgence.

However, for all its inscrutability, The Master is a powerful, beautifully shot work that opens up concepts of post-WWII quests for spirituality and meaning hitherto unexplored on the silver screen. Next stop: the Academy Awards.

The Master is out at cinemas nationwide now. Find out more details at

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