The Master (2012) on a Depressing Day
The Master (2012) is a movie starring Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, playing two very different men. This movie is spectacular, but you need some patience. The director Paul Thomas Anderson plays with characters, with perspective and with conflict, without throwing in a lot of endless exposition, which is rare in films these days. Hoffman’s character is Lancaster Dodd, a self-proclaimed “self-help teacher” and guru, who begins to develop into the perfect cult leader, but he’s a man who doesn’t know what the Hell he’s talking about, unfortunately. This movie doesn’t treat him as a farce or a joke however, but uses him to play on Phoenix’s character Freddie, who is suffering from some great depression and mental illness. In the end, the film doesn’t deal out some concrete ending with smiles and a speech, instead presenting all consequences and all life’s addictions, for the characters to deal with for the rest of their lives.
Yep, this movie is heavy. It’s got more layers than a sliced Turkey sandwich on rye. Anderson directs it masterfully and the way he captures the characters in certain moments is really amazing. However, it’s not just the moments, because any Michael Bay director with a flimsy story has those. This story is much better, and it centers on Freddie’s mental trauma and his experiences with a group called The Cause, who are led by Dodd. Apparently, the group and their beliefs are some allusion to scientology.
The development and exposure of Freddie’s character is really amazing. A really great scene actually comes early in the movie, where Dodd is interviewing Freddie and exposing him to “the process”, which is apparently the use of inane, repeated questions to elicit an emotional response. This (and some other scenes) is where Phoenix really shines and stretches his ability to play a traumatized, awkward guy with a limp. It’s sorta like Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump but played straight and with more traumatic acting so as to qualify for an Oscar.
So Freddie joins The Cause and he becomes the perfect subject, a man who can legitimize Dodd’s pseudo-science if he can “cure” him and make Freddie into a decent citizen again. He’s a tough nut to crack, traumatized by World War II, by his fear of marriage, and by his broken family. Dodd plays on these subjects throughout Freddie’s “treatment” but never really addresses them or gives Freddie any advice or assistance with how to deal with them. That’s because Dodd isn’t a real doctor, and he gets fined at one point during the movie for operating without a license. You can see Freddie’s frustration with The Cause and it seems very genuine.
This movie is depressing. Freddie regrets not being able to go back to his sweetheart after the war, and beats up anybody who mentions her name. He has a problem with anger and can’t control his compulsions. He can’t cope with his problems. And he feels alone. He looks depressed for most of the movie, especially after Dodd announces in front of an audience the subject of his second book, another blathering feelgood crap novel based on pseudo-science. The look on Freddie’s face as he slowly becomes disillusioned is classic. Anderson zooms in and captures it perfectly.
What does the ending to The Master mean?
Freddie somehow imagines that Dodd invites him to England because he “misses him”, when it’s his subconscious compulsion for a family that drives him back to this abusive crackpot. Freddie goes to Dodd’s school in England. Dodd seems unhappy with him and Freddie looks uncertain, at least at the beginning of the scene, as they sit across from each other in a large office. The allusions are right there. Dodd no longer needs a “subject” like Freddie and the huge room represents some measure of success. He seems unwilling to accept Freddie at face value anymore, especially after his wife goes to town telling Freddie off and saying he isn’t welcome. Dodd wants Freddie to stay, but only if he truly accepts The Cause, and Freddie starts to cry as Dodd again tries his old tricks by playing on his emotions. You see, Freddie has changed too, he accepts that he no longer needs Dodd and leaves, refusing the offer to stay without saying much.
Freddie goes to a bar and picks up a hooker. He has sex with her, making fun of “the process” by asking her the same inane, repeated questions from earlier in the movie. However, this isn’t a happy ending, it’s a throwaway relationship. Freddie is pretty much in the same place as he started at the beginning of the movie, with only himself and his dreams, which he now knows are only that, dreams. As he lies on the beach, he’s probably thinking about this. The beach represents nature, tranquility and freedom. It seems to represent loneliness for Freddie, who cuddles up to a sand sculpture of a woman, yearning for belonging and love, not just sex. He’s free of The Cause, with its lofty promises of a cure, but he’s left with the cold, hard reality of life. He probably sinks further into depression or continues on aimlessly for the rest of his life. It’s hard to tell.
In all, this is a great movie. Even the soundtrack is perfect, almost a drumming wash of minor chords and rhythmic drums, which supports the tension and Freddie’s helplessness. It’s hard to decide who puts on a better performance, Phoenix or Hoffman, but both men were nominated for an Oscar for their roles, and it’s deserved. There are a lot of really good scenes in this movie and that’s because of a great script, which was written by the same guy who directed it. As for weaknesses, this movie doesn’t have a lot, except maybe the pace and it gets slower as it goes, which is never good, but I never noticed once because I was interested in what happened in the story. It’s a good one.