Director PT Anderson explores the themes he so often plays with – loneliness among a crowd and the need to be reclusive when everyone needs you.
The Master has a lot of depth and a hidden meaning. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie, a mentally unbalanced man, a drifter and societal menace, losing himself in alcohol after a stint in the Navy during WWII, becoming more and more agitated each day.
Things take a turn when he sneaks into a ship to steal some alcohol and meets the charismatic, mysterious Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an intellectual man leading a semi-religious cult called The Cause that indulges in mental auditing to ‘heal’ damaged people. Lancaster takes pity on Freddie and becomes attached to him, determined to purge him of his troubles. Freddie is awestruck by the Master’s organisation and techniques built on the his beliefs of past lives and rigorous mental testing, but confronting his own past during the ‘healing’ sessions becomes a struggle as the Master’s erratic behavior is complimented by the increasingly bizarre foundations of The Cause.
Phoenix and Hoffman are absolutely electrifying in their roles with method performances taken to extreme levels. Anderson doesn’t outright demonise Scientology but it is easy to spot the parallels — the recording audit sessions, the financial frauds, the unintentionally hilarious ego of the Master, the delusions of him and his followers.
It’s creepy and fascinating to explore the fact that humans when pushed to the extreme rely on any kind of delusion to survive the real world.
Anderson is always intriguing because his films are never really easy to fully ingest the first time around. The Master seems to be about two men trying to become the ruler of their own world, but ultimately failing.
There is so much squeezed in the two hour 20 minutes runtime that you’d think it could be either too much or too little, but Anderson finds a fine balance and allows the characters and story to unwind perfectly.