This film is not the story of how scientology was created, I cannot stress that enough. Yes, one of the main characters, Lancaster Dodd, is based on the man who developed scientology, L. Ron Hubbard and scientology was not absent from the film. Though the word scientology was never uttered through the entire film, the principles, philosophies and ideals of scientology are used by some characters and used to influence others. While the ideas were present, at its core this film is not about scientology. It is simply about two men.
If you are not familiar with the odd, didactic style with which Paul Thomas Anderson approaches his films, then this film may seem very odd to you. One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard about this film is its lack of overall conflict. I do agree that if you take the plot of this film, you won’t find conflict in a “normal” place. Though the conflict doesn’t exist in its “normal” place, I would argue that this film has more conflict than most. The film doesn’t introduce conflict as an agent to build the plot to a final climax so we can reach a satisfying ending. Conflict is introduced into the film not as a plot point but as a way to let characters grow and change on screen. Conflict drives the characters, not the plot which makes the film seem as if there is no real conflict. The main conflict that exists in the film is internal conflict and a passive aggressive conflict that exists between characters.
The opening scene introduces us to the film’s insane, alcoholic main character Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Returning from war, it becomes clear from the very beginning that Freddy is mentally unstable. Working a number of jobs while drinking heavily, we see Freddy get fired for assaulting a customer and nearly killing a coworker with a drink that he made. Moving through life in a alcohol clouded stupor, Freddy eventually stows away on a boat. The boat is transporting the members of the Dodd family to New York while the youngest Dodd, Elizabeth Dodd (Ambyr Childers), marries Clark (Rami Malek). Freddy wakes up, not remembering how he arrived on the boat, and is lead to the head of the Dodd family, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Welcomed with open arms, Freddy is asked to join the wedding and the rest of the Dodd family, Lancaster’s wife Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams) and his son Val Dodd (Jesse Plemons). Taking a personal interest in Freddy, Lancaster decides to make him a personal project which sets up the plot for the rest of the film.
The rest of the film focuses on Freddy and his relationship to the Dodd family as well as the effect Lancaster’s work has on Freddy and the world. Becoming fiercely loyal in a short amount of time, Freddy becomes Lancaster’s right hand man. Submitting himself to the process that Lancaster has developed, Freddy becomes his guinea pig. The two develop a relationship while Lancaster, the Master, tries to fix Freddy with the philosophies developed through his writings and the philosophies his followers believe it. At times the relationship is volatile but it becomes clear that Freddy has a profound effect on Lancaster. As the relationship between Lancaster and Freddy grows, the rest of the Dodd family begins to distrust the man. They believe that unless Freddy gives up alchohol and changes his ways he will only bring problems to their cause.
From beginning to end, this film was absolutely brilliant. Each shot was composed beautifully, giving insight into the characters and their relationships. The film is riddled with symbols, the most prevalent being a repeated shot of churning water behind a boat. The music fits the mood perfectly, representing the possible disaster that Freddy poses, a speeding freight train that has no way of stopping as someone I know put it. Paul Thomas Anderson proves time and time again his overwhelming skill with a camera.
The only thing more impressive than the directing in this film was the acting. I am still trying to decide if I have very a more perfectly acted film. Both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix gave performances that made my jaw drop and left me completely speechless. On their own, each actor gave an Oscar worthy performance but when they were on screen together, somehow their performances got even better. There was a single scene, a scene where Lancaster gave Freddy his first round of processing, that I can honestly say is the greatest acted scene I have ever have the fortune of viewing in theaters. While the two main characters gave the acting performances of their lives, the rest of the acting in the film was superb as well. Though Amy Adams didn’t have as large of a role as I wanted, she commanded the screen every time she graced it, bringing a forceful beauty to the film.
I have not seen enough movies with Oscar buzz to definitively say that the Master will win best director, best picture and best actor, I can at least predict some nominations. The film will be nominated for best picture and I’m fairly certain that Paul Thomas Anderson will pull in a nomination for best director. If both of them can’t be nominated, at least one of the two lead actors will be nominated for best actor even though as far as I’m concerned, they should split this year’s Oscar in half and give it to both of them. Amy Adams has a chance to be nominated for best supporting actress but her role may not be large enough to give her the nomination. Overall, I can easily say this is the best film I have seen all year. I give the Master a 9.5 out of 10 and, while it may not be for everybody, recommend it to anybody that wants to see a tremendously well-done film.