Paul Thomas Anderson may only have six films under his belt since his debut, Hard Eight, in 1996, but the numerical amount can be forgiven when considering that each movie has been consistently incredible.With epic favorites like Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood, it may be difficult to imagine Anderson topping himself. But with the adept acting of Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell (an appropriate last name when you realize that everyone is constantly trying to quell him) and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the L. Ron Hubbardesque Lancaster Dodd, The Master manages to surpass the expectations of someone with even the highest of standards for Anderson.
As the already troubled Freddie returns to Massachusetts in the wake of World War II, his fragile mind and erratic temper is further deepened by the symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Attempting to re-ingratiate himself back into “normal life,” as they say, he gets a job taking photographs at a department store. After having a brief affair with one of the models there and assaulting one of his customers, Freddie then drifts to another job on a cabbage farm, where his stay is even more short-lived after being accused of poisoning one of the other employees with his alcoholic concoction.
Escaping from the band of angry cabbage pickers on his trail, Freddie somehow manages to board the yacht of Lancaster Dodd and his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), while blackout drunk. When he awakens, he has no memory of talking to Dodd the night before, who is fully aware of his presence as a stowaway. Freddie also seems to have forgotten offering Dodd some of his illustrious alcoholic elixir, which we later discover has paint thinner in it. As the leader of a movement and philosophy called The Cause (ahem, Scientology), Dodd sees potential for growth and mental recovery in Freddie and allows him to stay on the yacht—provided he continues to make his potion of drunkenness for both of them.
The two form a fast friendship—in spite of everyone else in Dodd’s family viewing Freddie as a hopeless degenerate not worth wasting the teachings of The Cause on. Once Dodd grows to trust Freddie even more, he starts implementing the methods of The Cause, including repetitive questioning and hypnosis for the purpose of memory regression. Freddie’s reactions toward the techniques of The Cause vary from enthusiastic to belligerent, in part due to his steadfast alcoholism and in part due to his troubled past (a dead father, an institutionalized mother and an aunt who he had an incestuous relationship with). All the while, Peggy, Dodd’s daughter, Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), her husband, Clark (Rami Malek), and Dodd’s son, Val (Jesse Plemons), have become increasingly wary of Freddie’s behavior. Their ambivalence about Dodd’s devotion to Freddie reaches its zenith when Dodd is arrested for illegally practicing medicine/swindling a foundation out of eleven thousand dollars and Freddie loses his temper toward the police, practically going primordial as they take Dodd away.
It is at this point in the story that a schism occurs between Dodd and Freddie, with Dodd finally growing fed up with Freddie’s antics and general stubbornness and Freddie questioning the veracity of Dodd’s teachings after Val asserts that Dodd simply makes it all up as he goes along. At the core of the push and pull—the constant contention—between Dodd and Freddie is rooted in something Dodd imparts to him at the end of the film: “If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.” And it is this aspect of life that Freddie cannot bear to reconcile with himself. And so, regardless of their bond, they must both admit to one another that their friendship cannot continue, a revelation that culminates in London as Dodd serenades Freddie with “(I’d Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China” in a more than borderline gay manner.
Apart from the robust length of the movie (which is what makes it masturbatory on the part of Anderson, who is somewhat known for only making two hour plus films), The Master is the first movie of the fall season to truly herald what the end of the year is known for: The serious film. And besides, you have to note the admirability/overall fearlessness of Anderson to have pre-screened The Master to Tom Cruise (who worked with Anderson on Magnolia). It must have made for an incredibly awkward conversation afterward.