Justin Peterson’s review published on Letterboxd:
Can an up and coming religious movement bring balance into the life of a WWII vet, who lives life on the run from his primal urges?
"My daughter's getting married, come join us! Leave your worries for awhile, they will still be there when you get back, and your memories aren't invited."
Coming to truly love Paul Thomas Anderson's follow up to his masterpiece 'There Will Be Blood' (TWBB), has been an interesting journey that has only come full circle while finally preparing to write this analysis. After watching the film a second time I can say that I love how PTA uses a similar score from Jonny Greenwood and visual style compared to TWBB. On top of that, we have these three masterful performances from our leads Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (RIP). But the cryptic way the movie is pieced together always left me cold. Despite me getting the theme of how Phoenix's character is unable to escape his true nature, despite becoming a follower of this religious movement led by Hoffman's character Dodd.
I will go ahead and quickly knock out the elephant in the room that Dodd's character in the story is clearly inspired by the founder of Scientology L. Ron Hubbard. Also, I have heard the Processing techniques used in this film are used in Scientology. I only have a vague understanding of the teachings of this religion, so I will just stick to what the film presents.
But when going back over the film I began to pick up how PTA uses this recurring imagery throughout the story to reflect Freddie's experience, and I found this to be so brilliantly crafted. Right from the start, we see how primal Freddie is with behavior, with how his sexual urges are shown through humping a woman sand sculpture and then getting himself off on the beach. Later while being interviewed by VA doctors and working simple jobs we see how aggressive is as he provokes fights. This behavior gets him into trouble and leads to the first of two instances were we see PTA using a wide shot of Freddie running away. This time is when he is fleeing through a field. For me, this not only shows how Freddie needs to get away from these people, but in general how he is trying to run from who he is as a person.
The other strong recurring imagery we are shown is the wake of the Navy ship that Freddie is on following the war. I find that the water turned up by this ship leaves a long path, which represents Freddie's long-troubled history that he is trying to escape. When Freddie meets Dodd, Dodd attempts to use this processing technique to cleanse Freddie of his troubled past that involves domestic issues, and abandoning a young romance. BTW the chemistry between Phoenix and Hoffman in these scenes is spectacular.
Freddie's self-diagnosis for dulling the pain of his past is a common one that many of us lean on from time to time, and that's alcohol. And Freddie brewing his own strong and potentially dangerous moonshine is what first gets him noticed by Dodd. You wonder why Dodd would take an interest in such a mess of a person? His family certainly urges him to stay away from him as the story progresses. I think Dodd finds Freddie to be a challenge with how shielded he is and works to use his methods to help him. But instead of Freddie actually learning from Dodds teachings, he ends up just wanting to return the favor for trying to help him by becoming his brute enforcer, who is quick to defend Dodd and rough those up who are in opposition to him. As helpful but criminal as these actions are, we do see that Dodd is against this kind of support. With Dodd's organization seeming to act like a cult, this kind of negative attention is a common thread in the story.
"Then why ask, pig fuck?”
As they say, every strong man has a strong woman behind him, and that is definitely the case for Amy Adams who plays Mrs. Dodd. The brilliance of her role and performance can all be summed up in that intense bathroom scene when she shows him who is in control, when she orders him to get off for her in the sink.
"What do you do ... I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you."
I wish the movie would have put more attention on the difficulties we see emerge around 'The Cause', like how Dodd's son tells Freddie how he is making it all up. Or the confrontation Laura Dern's character has with him when she becomes disenchanted with the teachings he presents in his second book. But instead, the focus remains on Freddie since he is the main character. I love during his processing, the moment when we are shown a flash of him with the sand sculpture woman, and all of a sudden a wave comes up to wash it away, showing the possibly the processing is helping to release him from this memory/impulse.
The second fantastic wide shot is late in the movie, when Freddie is running from his true nature on a motorcycle in the desert. Or is he possibly running away from the man Dodd is trying to help him become, and returning to his primitive nature? One of the moments that stood out most to me the first time I saw The Master was the movie theater scene, when it appears that there is a touch of surrealism when he is given a phone to talk with Dodd. But in rewatching it, I see that this is clearly a dream Freddie has, about how he needs to face Dodd once again.
"This is something you do for a billion years or not at all. This isn't fashion."
Dodd then gives Freddie the ultimatum of either staying with him or never returning. This is the biggest moment where the movie gets ambiguously cold for me, when Freddie does decide to go off on his own despite his affection for Dodd, as we get the odd 'Slow Boat To China' song. Maybe it is because I don't relate with Freddie's decision, because I am not typically one to walk away from things in life that I have become invested in.
In the final scenes, we see that Freddie tries to imitate Dodd's processing technique to try and become 'the master' of a girl he has hooked up with. But in true Freddie fashion, he cannot take himself seriously and they end up laughing it off. And in the final shot, we once again see that image of the sand woman, showing that Freddie is right back where he started and is continuing to live through his primal urges. But possibly having learned a few lessons along the way to give him some more stability in making this choice for himself.
The film is way too damn thought-provoking and well made not to give 5 stars. Paul Thomas Anderson is easily one of my favorite Directors, and every time he makes a film I will be first in line to go see it. So maybe he is The Master ; )
Thanks for reading.
Happy movie watching ... SKOL!