At the start of The Master, Freddie Quell, played by a ferocious Joaquin Phoenix, returns to the U.S. after serving in World War II. He’s a broken man driven by addictions, fear, and anger. He starts out respectably enough but soon loses ground and falls to the bottom of the societal heap. Then he meets the Master, also known as Lancaster Dodd.
Dodd has formed his own sort of religious cult based on self-actualization. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Dodd with skill that is, well, masterful. He is charismatic and charming, with simultaneous undercurrents of steel and self-doubt. Early on we see him close up in a red robe, making him look like a cross between Kris Kringle and the devil himself.
Freddie happens upon the Master and his people as they are taking a sort of retreat together. He has no idea what they are doing, but he’s looking for any way to survive. The Master takes him on as a protégé; he seems to think that if he can help Freddie find self-control, it will be living proof of Dodd’s own power.
“You are not an animal,” says the voice on the self-help recordings, telling Freddie that he can “bring man back to his inherent state of perfect.” In that case, Freddie has a long way to go; he’s as close to an animal as he could get. Phoenix plays Freddie in a bent and contorted state of mind and body. Following every appetite, he pursues sex and alcohol with dogged perseverance. He reacts immediately to anything with a fight-or-flight instinct. At one point, Freddie is in a jail cell, a caged animal pacing and inflicting injury on himself. Yet he is looking for something to save him from himself. The Master sets him on a painful road to self-control, which in reality is the Master’s control over Freddie, not Freddie’s control over himself.
This, it seems, is what we are meant to consider. Can we have control over ourselves? Do we need to follow someone else? Can we master our own impulses (or from our theological perspective, our own sinful natures)? The Master tells Freddie that if he can find a way to live without serving some sort of master, he would be “the first person in the history of the world.” As Christians, we’d have to agree to the truth of that, as through grace we freely leave behind our old ways to serve a much more benevolent Master than poor Freddie.
Hoffman and Phoenix are brilliant. Amy Adams is also strong in her role as the Master’s current wife, Peggy, who does some controlling of her own. The cinematography is sharp and arresting; the music is subtle and effective. One of the early moments of Freddie’s return to civilian life is paired with a torch song from Ella Fitzgerald called “Get Thee Behind Me Satan,” making plain the appeal of the temptations Freddie faces.
All of these components should add up to something deep and affecting, which might make it tolerable to witness the numerous vulgarities and perversities of the film’s characters. There were moments, such as when the Master first “processes” Freddie by asking him rapid-fire questions during which Freddie is not supposed to blink, that effectively give the viewer insight into Freddie’s need and Dodd’s power. But somehow it left me cold. Ironically, this movie about a charismatic leader who draws in the people around him held me at a distance. (Weinstein)