Review: The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film The Master is by far my favourite film of the year. It is the only film, so far, that has managed to exceed my expectations after watching the trailers and hearing the hype. There are so many great things about this master piece, no pun intended, that I felt like writing a longer review to cover it all. PTA is clearly the best director out there now. And like his ever moving camera shots, he’s constantly moving forward with interesting ways to shoot his films. In this particular case, he’s experimented with extra wide Panavision 65mm film (projecting in 70mm) to capture the extreme detail in contrasting shots of close-ups between lead actors and wide open vistas.

The main focus on the build up to this film has been slanted towards the hype surrounding it’s possible expose on the Church of Scientology. Sorry to disappoint those expecting one, but this film is not that. It’s a lot more. The score from Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood will almost certainly win the Oscar this year. His previous collaboration with Anderson yielded the bone shivering score to There Will Be Blood, for which he was cruelly disqualified – Academy rules prohibit the use of previously used music and one track was also used on the BBC produced Bodysong. This time however, Greenwood is in the clear.

“She wrote me a letter”

Do your past failure bother you?…..Do you linger at bus stations for pleasure?…..Is your life a struggle?

These are the lines of probing questions Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) must endure in the inaugural processing session with Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a new age movement, known as The Cause. Dodd can see there is something buried deep in Freddie’s psyche, and he will help him to unlock it.

We are first introduced to Freddie, serving his final days in the Navy, during World War Two. Getting into drunken brawls with his superiors, while making near toxic hooch with torpedo fuel and coconut milk. These are just a few of his many mischievous endeavours. The psychological treatment he gets, while being re-introduced back to society, is minimal at best. His post-traumatic recovery consists of a heavy pill dosage and a simple speech about being a productive member of society.

During the Second World War, not much was known about dealing with post traumatic stress, so you would find soldiers being classified as suffering from “combat fatigue”, “shell shock” or “exhaustion” – The fewer number of words in the classification, the less treatment and help you would seem to get. In these cases the soldier would have to rely on a tight knit family for support. But for those without one, there was always self medication and high rates of suicide around the corner.

Below is a film that was made by John Huston, called Let There Be Light, regarding the types of cases witnessed after the war. Of particular interest is the scene at 8 minutes and 13 seconds, which is taken verbatim and used in the film. It’s important to note that this film was only made public in 1996. So you can tell how shocking this must have been for people to see.

Freddie suffers the same symptoms as the men in Huston’s documentary. His intense and repetitive processing sessions, with Dodd, reveals his past traumas – he had an incestuous relationship with an aunt, his father is dead, his mother is institutionalised and he has abandoned the love of his life, a young girl named Doris who wrote to him while he was at war. Not to mention the death and destruction he witnessed in the Pacific Theater. Like Freddie there were many men and woman looking for ways to deal with their traumas, but lacked the support or acknowledgement of their emotional scars. The appeal or draw of joining a movement like The Cause may have seemed protective and accepting to their needs.

Freddie’s traumatic confrontation with his past, through Dodd’s processing, helps him to lift the heavy weight off his caved-in shoulders, granting him a brief moment of peace. From that moment Freddie is forever grateful. But the impact of this session is also felt on Dodd, who now wields a strong power over Freddie as well as a growing admiration for his guinea-pigs progress.

“…you merely have the will of one man, which is the basis of cult.”

As you’ve most likely heard already, the films movement, known as the Cause, is very closely based on the origins of Scientology, which also had its roots in the same time period when many philosophical and political movements were on the rise. Scientology was the Mormonism of its day. The movements had charismatic leaders, both practised similar techniques in counselling, shared similar controversies, the list goes on. Director, Paul Thomas Anderson, has said that the character of Dodd is partly based on the life of L Ron Hubbard, although most of his traits seem to be borrowed from the great orator Orson Welles – which came at the recommendation of Hoffman.

For the first third of the film the Cause is shown in an almost flattering light, which is not uncommon for any Anderson film – Boogie Nights is a prime example, showing the characters of a seedy porn industry with some sympathy. A promotional visit, for the Cause to the city, leads to a confrontational and heated exchange between a naysayer and Dodd, leading to the labelling of the Cause as a cult. Here we can begin to see further similarities between Dodd’s Cause and Hubbard’s Church of Scientology.

It’s a mistake however to assume the story is about the origin of Scientology. It’s only there to provide the backdrop for an interesting and deep film about the relationship between these two men and how that evolves.

“If you leave here, I don’t want to see you ever again…..Or you can stay”

By the end of the film, and with out giving too much away, the relationship between Dodd and Freddie becomes strained and at a breaking point. The final scene is a testament to the superb acting ability of both Phoenix and Hoffman. The two go head to head in a tour de force of emotion and sincerity that you will not see from any other actors this year. You could imagine the scene being played by lesser actors, resulting in the scene looking farcical – the scene involves Dodd singing a love song to Freddie.

Not since Daniel Day Lewis’s turn in There Will Be Blood has there been a demonstration of pure acting ability. With There Will Be Blood though, the performance is heavily one-sided to Day Lewis, whereas The Master has two equally good performers.

Critics have found it hard sometimes to decide which of the two is the lead actor, eventually awarding both of them equally at Venice Film Festival, with the Volpi Cup for Best Actor. It will be interesting to see how the academy reacts to this. But maybe Phoenix’s remarks last week involving the Academy sticking a carrot where the sun don’t shine, might make it easier for them to make their decision. We’ll see.




  1. […] Paul Thomas Anderson’s film was probably my most anticipated film of 2012. As you can probably tell I’m a HUGE PTA fan, so I’m probably for forgiving for The Master’s flaws than most. You only get  a film from him every 5 years, so it’s like a major event when it happens. The film was surrounded in controversy and buzz following the revelation of the theme’s being discussed in the film. PTA’s earlier draft title for the film was “The Paul Thomas Anderson Scientology Film” so it got a lot of people interested. The performances by Phoenix and Hoffman were probably the best of the year. Combine that with excellent cinematography and outstanding score and you have my best film of the year. [FULL REVIEW] […]

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