Movie Review: The Master

Movie Review: The Master

A thought-provoking look at the role of spiritual leadership

By Mark HadleyWednesday 7 Nov 2012MoviesReading Time: 3 minutes

The new flick 'The Master' brings the notion of 'salvation' into question


RELEASE DATE: November 8, 2012  

A new think piece by the writer-director who brought us There Will Be Blood, Magnolia and Boogie Nights challenges the need for faith. The Master asks audiences to consider, do we really need someone to lead us to salvation?

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, an American sailor who hails from a home troubled by substance abuse and mental illness. When he returns traumatized from World War II he ends up undergoing treatment in a military hospital. A doctor tells Freddie’s ward, “You men are blessed with the rejuvenating power of youth. The question is what will you do with the rest of your life?” This becomes the film’s quest.
Freddie seeks to fit back in but every job he tackles falls victim to his alcoholism. Viewers should be prepared for self-destructive sex scenes that reflect his sad plight. Quell finally stows away on a pleasure yacht and comes into contact with Dr. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a self-improvement society.

‘The Cause’ is a movement based on Dodd’s ‘discoveries’ – a collection of amateurish psychoanalysis and hypnosis wedded to a reincarnation mythology. “Man is not an animal,” Dodd explains. “We sit far above the animal kingdom perched as spirits. You are not ruled by your emotions. It is not only possible, it is easily achievable to remove every negative impetus.” But can this triumphant humanism make any practical difference to Freddie?

Through Freddie director Paul Thomas Anderson investigates whether anyone can save himself by handing the responsibility for his healing over to someone else. Hoffman plays the archetypical guru whose road to recovery depends on strict adherence to a list of wise-sounding secrets. He is surrounded by weak-minded women, men in need of a crutch and a variety of charlatans. It’s hard not see him as some form of 1950’s stand-in for every spiritual leader who has claimed to possess the keys to eternal life. However the difference between Anderson’s creation and the historical Jesus is that Christ never asked anyone to achieve their own salvation. Where Freddie struggles under an increasing load of spiritual exercises, Jesus offers a solution that rests completely on his own shoulders.
And what of the result? Without spoiling the plot The Master shows the paucity of Dodd’s wisdom as the leader comes under increasing stress from the outside world. Rather than persecution proving his integrity as it did for Christ, Dodd becomes increasingly contradictory, even antagonistic towards his followers. His son Val tells Freddie, “You know he’s making this all up as he goes along?” and the revelation sinks him into an ungovernable rage. Freddie realizes his blind submission has only enslaved him. 
This is the real target at which Anderson takes aim. As Freddie toys with turning away from Dodd’s cult, the leader asks him: 
“If you know a way to live without serving a master – any master – then let us know, because you would be the very first in all of history.”
Christians could agree. It sounds very similar to Jesus’ warning that man only has the devil and God to choose from. He tells the Jews challenging him, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” However watch closely and you’ll see the story concluding with Freddie becoming his own master.

This is the only healthy response the film offers: to refuse to be mastered by anyone but yourself. Yet what’s also clear is that though Freddie is happier, he is no closer to solving the problems that have dogged his existence. Meanwhile Dodd’s faith drifts on from country to country as the inhabitants grow wise to his foolishness. By contrast, Jesus offers a path that still draws people today after two thousand years of examination because it continues to transform lives.