The Master

The Master ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

"If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you'd be the first person in the history of the world."

There is a painful relatability to The Master. It challenges us to process our innermost doubts and regrets: the hazy uncertainty of our past and present, along with the overwhelming emptiness of our future. We have each faced our share of trials and tribulations in life, for like Lancaster Dodd we are simply, above all, humans. Humans who may be capable of appearing in control of our own destinies, but underneath that illusion have all the same fears and animalistic tendencies as the rest. We are humans perpetually in search of a purpose, or else a master to provide some sort of cause to keep us going. And perhaps the most frightening thing is that no path can be deemed right or wrong. There are no black or white roads to success or failure, only self-truths that lead each of us to different conclusions.

This is why it is subtly crucial that the film merely labels Dodd's religious flock as "The Cause." Paul Thomas Anderson isn't attempting to create a film which simply focuses on depicting the growth of Scientology or any other infamous movement from history, but rather a film that explores the nature of belief as a whole. This isn't to say that PTA sees something like Scientology as representative of all religion, but that in looking at the inner-conflicts and struggles of all sides (including cult mentalities), we can observe startling similarities. We all crave something to believe in, a "Cause" of our own. Whether it be based in past lives, mythical creatures, one god or thousands, or even just the most basic human pleasures. There is no set truth to follow, just a million ideas pulling each of us in different directions.

And what then is the nature of belief? What differentiates a follower from a slave? When analyzing "The Cause", one has to acknowledge the unsettling connotation of the term "master" for which Dodd is commonly referred to. Are Dodd's followers truly thinking for themselves in any capacity? Or are they simply laughing along with his tangential musings, listening to stories about leashed dragons and cured ailments, so captivated by his never-ending thoughts that they never stop to actually wonder about the nature of his leadership? As someone who has previously been a follower of an organized religion, this is where the uncomfortable relatability that I mentioned earlier comes into play. And beyond all of this of course, is the creeping irony that even within "The Cause" itself, Dodd's wife remains "master" over him.

Watching PTA's meditation on self-purpose and existential alienation is nothing short of mesmerizing. Greenwood's score recalls the meandering string compositions of There Will Be Blood but with a palpable added aura of hypnotization that, combined with the breathtaking visuals and wandering plot, dizzies and perplexes the viewer in a variety of ways. The performances from Phoenix and Hoffman are otherworldly. They are so completely lost in their roles that they come across as believable in every respect, as if they were born to play these parts. Hoffman IS Lancaster Dodd, Phoenix IS Freddie Quell, and the supporting cast including Amy Adams as Dodd's controlling wife, Jesse Plemons as his distant son, and Rami Malek as his obedient son-in-law, play their roles convincingly as well. While some plot points in the second half become slightly muddled, it’s ultimately unimportant in a film so singularly concerned with the interiority of its characters. There is an unmistakable polish and beauty to every inwardly-seeking moment brought through both the aformentioned unforgettable performances and the masterful filmmaking from PTA, who seems to just get better with each new project.

The Master is a truly stunning film. It's an experience that glides through complex human themes with grace and insight. Familial turmoil and 1950s post-war struggles are contrasted effortlessly with man's deepest primal desires and the human search for comfort amidst a chaotic existence. In the end, the final destination for Freddie is right back where he started. As he lies on the beach with the sea stretching beyond him, the earth below his feet, and the stars far above, he wonders to what end his search for a better home would be. For would he really be more content anywhere else than here?

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