Divining The Master's Meaning
- Friday, September 21, 2012
DVD Release Date: February 26, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: September 21, 2012
Rating: R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language
Run Time: 137 min.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Actors: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Christopher Evan Welch
In a climactic moment from the Coen brothers' dark comedy A Serious Man, an aged rabbi addresses the film's spiritually struggling protagonist by quoting the lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love:
Don’t you want somebody to love
Don't you need somebody to love
Wouldn't you love somebody to love
You better find somebody to love.
The same chorus could be sung to Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, The Village), the protagonist in writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Like the director’s previous film There Will Be Blood, The Master is open to a number of interpretations, but the most direct, surface reading of the film is that it’s about a man who craves love in his life. To find it, he looks to women close to his own age, or to much younger women, and even to shapely sand sculptures (more on that later). But this story's focus is on the bond he forms with a charismatic cult figure.
Early in The Master, Freddy and his friends from the Navy celebrate the end of World War II by partying on a beach and building a sand figure in the shape of a buxom woman. Freddy jumps on top of the sand figure and simulates sex. It's not appropriate, but we have no reason to think it's other than one man's ill-advised but momentary foolishness in front of his friends.
Although we hear General MacArthur's prayer for peace as the war concludes, and a radio broadcast that declares "the war is over, peace is here," peace is nowhere near Freddie. His life is about to unravel. He has post-war trauma, and his excessive alcohol consumption makes for a volatile mix. He can’t hold a job as a department store photographer, and he can't resist attractive women.
With little going right in his life, Freddie impulsively sneaks aboard a ship and encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt). "You've wandered from the proper path," Dodd informs Freddie. (Another Dodd statement to Freddie, "You seem so familiar to me," lends credence to a theory that Dodd may be a manifestation of another side, or another personality, of Freddie). To get back on that path, Freddie must embrace "The Cause"—a pseudo-religious system pioneered by Dodd.
What is the Cause? It’s a way, Dodd claims, for humans to revert to an innocent state by getting rid of all negative impulses—from this lifetime or from previous lives. To do this, Dodd leads his followers through a series of questions—the answers to which are recorded—that bring people's secrets to the surface. The intervention is dubbed "processing" (pre-release rumors that The Master parallels the beliefs and activities of Scientology appear to be well grounded). Questions include: "Have you killed anyone?" "Have you ever had sex with a member of your family?" and "Do you believe God will save you?"
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