Gotta Serve Somebody: Finding Purpose in ‘The Master’

Image 1: Joaquin Phoenix, The Master

The sky in much of P.T. Anderson’s The Master hovers at a shade of wiped gray-white, the blue appearing in the form of snips of a heaving riptide and dimly lit interior spaces. It relays a confusion as to what is up and what is down, inside and out, truth or fiction, good or bad. That gives us some insight into the relationship between the film’s dictating figure, the Master himself, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, perhaps taking a page out of Orson Welles’s Charles Foster Kane here), and its troubled disciple, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, truly, and frighteningly, brilliant). It also offers a lens into unpacking writer/director Anderson’s complex portrayal of the seductions of blind, misled faith in exchange for devoted companionship. Continue reading “Gotta Serve Somebody: Finding Purpose in ‘The Master’” »

Mastering ‘The Master’

master (noun): (1) a man who has people working for him, esp. servants or slaves; (2) the original print of a film from which theatrical copies are made; (3) a shot that covers an entire scene in a single take.

Stephen Farber is not alone among thoughtful reviewers (LA Times, Sept. 29) in castigating Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master for an underwritten narrative that leaves characters in the lurch and fails to live up to its European art cinema pretentions.

Granting the film’s purposely non-traditional technique, Farber nevertheless objects to the dearth of motivation offered for Freddie Quell’s (Joaquin Phoenix) lost soul and for cult leader Lancaster Dodd’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) instant taking to the rotgut-concocting, violence-prone Quell.

A closer look at the film overrules both objections. Several factors for Freddie’s “animalistic” behavior are proposed. A prematurely deceased (likely abusive) father and mentally institutionalized mother are clearly not the greatest confidence-builders, much less for a boy-man with a hunchback and a hair-lip—nor could a stint on a battleship in World War II have proved therapeutic. Continue reading “Mastering ‘The Master’” »