The Master is a meditative exercise into the mind and mannerisms of Freddie Quell, a man whose quest for post-war sanity is filtered through the radicalism of a cult leader. This ‘cult’ is based loosely, as has been said somewhat hesitantly by the director, Paul Thomas Anderson, on L. Ron Hubbard and his pseudo-religion, Scientology. The film poses many questions during the course of its two-hour plus run-time: It is not restrained by the objectivity of a plot. We’re taken into the world of Lancaster Dodd, played with the veteran finesse that has come to characterize actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work, and offered the choice to make our own judgements of the material, like how a reader judges and deciphers a religious or ‘cult’ book.
Freddie Quell is played by Joaquin Phoenix with such determination and angst that it would seem the actor is hosting completely opposite thoughts than his character: naturalistic yet seasoned, Freddie is a skin-and-bones alcoholic with nothing to lose. He is a drifter and as usual with drifters, he is fairly free-minded. He allows Lancaster Dodd to enter his mind with his enlightenment garbage, yet comes out the other end with little visible improvement.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson has said before that he is an actor’s director; as shown by his previous films, like Magnolia and Boogie Nights, Anderson enjoys weaving the intricacies of relationships and the pasts of his characters. This is shown indefinitely in The Master. He uses rack-focus and blurriness to describe his characters and their emotions. He uses extreme close-ups and holds them for a long period of time to show the tenseness flowing behind the eyes. During the ‘processing’, the movie’s equivalent to auditing, we feel like we’re asking the questions: the frame is positioned directly on Freddie Quell, a squirmy, defensive man, anxious to protect any self-pride remaining in him.
The character of Freddie Quell holds a consistent pattern: he is sexually obsessive, too young for his body, and absolutely alcoholic. He uses paint thinner and even accidentally poisons an old man. Upon meeting Lancaster Dodd, the cult leader wants him to make a boat-load of this potent, dangerously concentrated liquor for him. Freddie blatantly replicates actions of people, but only when they seem to work out successfully. But of all, he is not a man, as The Master says, but a guinea pig. He is used by Dodd to perform strange interrogations of character, one session where Freddie has to remain unblinking while being intensely questioned.
The film is beautifully shot and rendered, a slow-moving piece that isn’t restrained by expectations. Anderson doesn’t seem to have a firm viewpoint or judgement on the merit of Scientology: he is filling the screen with flush images and letting us judge them for ourselves.