The Master is a living and breathing work of art. It is something that both surpasses the idea of cinema and makes it accessible to every viewer.
It is exactly like the Rorshach test that Freddie—a WWII veteran-cum-drifter, played by Joaquin Phoenix—encounters near the beginning of the film. Just like the test itself, we question what's inside The Master.
One scene in particular made me think of the frame that modern day auteur, Paul Thomas Anderson, director, uses to capture his characters. Near the middle of the film, Freddie begins to pace back and forth in a small room as onlookers gawk. Anderson's camera follows him, but the camera doesn't need to move much. It's almost as if Freddie is bouncing back and forth between the actual boundaries in the filmic frame, while we, the film audience, watch.
The Master, Lancaster Dodd—the leader of a cultish group with hints of Scientology, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman—forces this on Freddie. Controlling him. It’s almost as if Dodd's directing him.
At one point, from the madness of walking back and forth, Freddie attaches himself to the window and starts to imagine the way things are outside, much as the audience does, as it watches the film.
There is no way we could ever smell the flowers in a movie or touch something. But we are driven to that conclusion because of the boundaries we are put in. When we walk into a movie, we have to suspend a certain disbelief. This causes us to turn that belief elsewhere.
Creators of art test us. They are conducting a Rorschach test on us. Making us feel things that aren't really there.
Dodd's frustration with Freddie shows that he will never be able to capture that visceral aspect that plagues all of humanity. Such is the plague that all artists have.
We can try and try and try to force something into the bubble, or, in Anderson's case, the frame, or mise-en-scene, but we will never fully capture the essence of it. It's almost as if the boundaries further the capture, while also limiting our experience.
The Master is a reflection of ourselves and how we try to contain life in something easily explainable. We try to force ourselves to believe that, if we solve the unsolvable, the whole universe can be understood.
On a character level, such is the quest and, ultimately, the downfall, of Dodd. Instead of focusing on a specific behavior or habit of humanity, he looks to "go deeper" and solve the mysteries of the unknown. This is easier for him to do. Because it is such a large encompassing subject, he can never be wrong.
He eventually pushes it too far near the end, and it reveals itself. It is why Dodd becomes frustrated with a particular man who starts challenging his teachings in a more specific route. Dodd isn't concerned with specifics. Specifics are easily identifiable and, therefore, can be considered wrong.
What makes this film so enthralling is Freddie's willingness to apply himself to Dodd. Freddie has found some sort of fascination with him. What it is exactly, we aren't sure. The fascination of control? Of imagination?
If we think of Dodd as a director, why exactly do we watch movies? We want to see things as a controlled reality but a bit more fantastical. Film does its best to imitate reality, except it's cleaned up. No "uhs" or "likes." It has a calming sense to it. Yet, it stretches the boundaries to endless possibilities.
Freddie could never be that imaginative. That's why he looks up to Dodd.
Dodd does all the work for him. Just as Freddie also likes being controlled, so does an audience when watching a film.
At one point, Freddie and Dodd embrace, and then fall to the ground, wrestling. It could be seen as an uncomfortable moment, but it's actually one of the more poignant instances in the film. Mostly because of this: Who tackles who? Who brings down who? They both depend on each other.
The director needs his subject. The subject needs control. They are enigmas without each other, yet enigmas with each other. It's this strange dependency of the subject of art, and how real life compliments it.
One thing that can clearly be stated: This is Joaquin Phoenix's film. He literally is Freddie. His performance is described as nothing more than subtly explosive. He makes Freddie both identifiable and an enigma that drives Dodd crazy.
At the end of the film, Freddie's impression on us lasts. He can only be explained as well as the inkblot on the white card. [Editor's note: A couple of issues back we published a review of The Master—which, among other things, said that the film lacked narrative cohesion and that its "themes are surface-level and threadbare." SFR intern extraordinaire Jose V Chavez disagreed and offers this fresh take on the film for your consideration. EL] ---