The Master, the latest magnum opus from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, opens with Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a WWII Naval soldier in the days just before V-J Day, on a South Pacific island feverishly concocting some sort of potion meant to resemble alcohol with the few ingredients at his disposal. He tosses it back with a clear desperation. Soon after he is discharged we catch up with him as a portrait photographer at a department store. There in his dark room he again mixes up a boozy potion and shares it with a fetching showroom model. He moves on to find work in the fields of Salinas, California and when the working day is done he tracks down available liquids to whip up more moonshine, this one that may or may not poison a man.
Eventually, in a regal shot that tracks alongside Freddie, he finds himself in the deep of night passing an illuminated yacht filled with well dressed folks singing and dancing and quickly and inconspicuously hops aboard. It is the boat of The Master (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), or: Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic man lording over The Cause, explained here and there in bits and pieces as a religion evoking L. Ron Hubbard’s much discussed Scientology, which just so happened to take shape in the 1950′s which just so happens to be when The Master takes place.
The Master himself is blending his own potion (“He’s making all this up as he goes along”), sculpting The Cause, taking ideas that intrigue him, casting aside the rest. And, with no disrespect meant to anyone, this is inherent of any religion. Lutherans believe when taking communion that the Body and Blood of the Lord exist within the bread and the wine. Catholics believe the bread and the wine change into the Body and Blood of the Lord when consecrated by the Priest at Mass. Baptists believe the bread and the wine is a symbolic representation of the Body and Blood of the Lord. See what I mean? They think this and they think that and so it goes.
Quell, played by Phoenix in a performance of prodigious physicality in which he sort of shuffles about, bent forward, Quasimodo-ish, his face often fixed in a bemused, dissatisfied sneer, is clearly in search of something, some place to be, and this place seems to take him in. They gather together in a simple if expansive home evoking a more cultish X Mansion. It is clear Quell is confused about The Cause’s procedures and teachings but when those procedures and teachings are so much as questioned by an unknown outsider, he attacks, likely how he must flipped the switch when shipped off to war. He pledges his allegiance utterly, until he decides to revoke his pledge.
Not everyone, however, is so trusting of this hot-headed outsider, including The Master’s pregnant wife Peggy (Amy Adams, biting), seemingly always at her Master’s – er, Husband’s – side. Oh, but she is not merely dowdy arm candy – no, Adams, in terse dialect, reveals herself as the film progresses to be a second lieutenant (maybe more?) and suspicious of outsiders who threaten this bubble they have thrown around themselves. The Master, in fact, despite proving himself capable of brusque outbursts when his views are challenged, also proves himself to be the one with the most interest in helping this wayward vet. Hoffman grandstands when The Master is required to but also manages to look inward amidst all the theatrics and reveal a man, despite his position of power, as potentially unsure as this young wanderer he has taken under his wing.
Allusions are made by other characters that perhaps this Quell is a spy, planted by villainous outsiders to expose The Cause. This is clearly shown not to be the case and, yet, The Cause itself, despite much pre-movie conjecture about the film’s intent, is not really the driving force of Anderson’s two and a half hour tale. Rather it is the relationship of Master and Quell and, even more so, Quell’s solo quest.
A parallel narrative with far less screen time involves a young woman (Madisen Beaty) Quell once loved, promised to marry, but abandoned for the army and his hobo-esque existence. When pressed by The Master he confesses he yearns, above all else, to get back to her, but when he does he finds that she has already moved on. So what happens when that which you have striven for and believed in all along does not exist or cannot be attained? You pack it up. You continue your search.
You mix up another potion and hope to whoever that this one is right.