TIFF 12′ WRAP UP: The Master

By Brandon Bastaldo

The Master (2012)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Joaquin Pheonix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern

TIFF’d Off

On Friday, September 8th I couldn’t figure out how I had found myself waiting in line outside of the Princess of Wales Theatre for nearly two hours straight, for a film.

It’s not that waiting in an agonizingly slow moving line for a movie is undoable for me- hell the last time I was willing to do this was just a couple of months ago for Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated Alien prequel  Prometheus . But with new inventions like reserved theatre seats, or maybe because of the recent lack of ingenuity in Hollywood films making going to the movies a lower level priority in my life (Prometheus, case in point); waiting in line for so long seems like a hassle of the past.

But on the first Friday of the 37th annual Toronto International Film Festival, I found it just bearable enough because, toiling amongst hundreds of other buzzing TIFF patrons, I was waiting to get into the Canadian premier of The Master.

No doubt one of the big tickets at TIFF and sure to be one of 2012’s most awaited films, after watching director Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous gruesome oil masterpiece There Will Be Blood (2007), I don’t think I’m alone when I say that Anderson recalled indescribable emotions -similar to those that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey once created for me.

I got good seats, I guess.

Seeing years of Anderson’s bold and rigorous perspective shown in his prior endeavours like Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), and Punch Drunk Love (2002), There Will Be Blood came for me as a highly decided, and more surefooted exercise in Anderson’s indelible auteur- Anderson’s magnum opus in his body of work.

Speaking of Kubrick when thinking of Anderson works so fittingly because, like Kubrick and his decades-apart work schedule, Anderson too has released films at a much slower pace and indeed his work has come to be revered like a low-and-slow stew best served with a fine glass of whiskey and fat cigar. The Master really comes exactly with this type of anticipation, and starting nearly an hour behind schedule, I could feel the hundreds of bodies surrounding me in the dimly lit theatre slobbering as this long awaited cinematic meal hit the screen.

The Plot

The Master tells a disjunctive story about WWII Submariner Freddie Quell (Joaquin Pheonix) who returns to shore only find that his carefree life adrift at sea cannot be replicated on solid ground. Addicted to barbiturates, alcohol, and just about any type of drug he can get his hands on we watch Quelll struggle to fit into different pockets of a society that has drastically changed because of the war, and only to discover that his misfitdom is ubiquitous.

Joaquin Pheonix as troubled Navy vet Freddie Quell in The Master

It’s not until Quell runs into self-proclaimed mystic, theologian, philosopher, and man of science Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) otherwise known as ‘Master’, that Quell finds the only person daring enough to try to dismantle the fiery-primal furies that hardwire his core. Still, in many ways its Quell who, travelling with Dodd and his cult-like family of followers, is likewise the only person with ardour burning enough to try to put Dodd’s self-help cure called ‘The Cause’ to the test.


Anderson doesn’t fail to impress us with his definitive brand of artistry. From its inception, The Master spends crucial time capturing and contrasting the colours of crystalline, aqua blue waters with nearly tangible, textured-static images of things like Quell’s weathered and chipped helmet. It’s with this that Anderson causes us to survey and study, reflect and appreciate every hue, colour, and composition of the age we have been plopped into. And the lean-layered sounds that Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood laces Anderson’s images with work fantastically to accent this capacious drama in all the right ways.

It was great seeing what Anderson was able to do with the vibrant colours of the beach. The Eden-limbo that Quell and his fellow Submariners find on whatever remote island it was they surfaced on, and the feelings of unbridled freedom is surely something only they will ever understand.

Anderson’s uncanny ability to bring us back to a time and place through his masterful visual construction is indeed one of the strongest powers of The Masterand watching this film evoked a sense of nostalgia in me similar to that of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, On the Road, and Howl.

Quell drunkenly stumbles from being a department store photographer, to a field worker alongside Chinese immigrants and The Master becomes undeniably reminiscent of the ideas of fluidity and misdirection that Kerouac and the leaders of the Beat poets spewed forth in their own manifestos of youthful revolution.

The Message

As we watch Quell stumble through the streets, alone in this urban wilderness teaming with groups, pockets, and collections of people, it becomes clear that The Master is about more than just a Kerouacian type of youthful phantasm. It’s here that the image of broken and beaten man that Ginsberg so accurately captures in his epic beat poem Howl is elucidated.  The Master better acquaints us with the bitter, unforgiving environment that surrounds post WII America, and the drug and booze fuelled haze that consumed a nation of people wanting to forget.

One of the most pleasurable surprises of The Master is that this film is just as much about Quell’s unexplainable dash from his past, as it is about Dodd’s coming to grips with his unpredictable future.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as spiritual leader of “the Cause” Lancaster Dodd

In many ways, Dodd’s title as ‘The Master’ is well deserved: he is articulate, imaginative, charming, and exuberant about himself and his teachings. But when Quell and Dodd  first meet, and Dodd requests for Quell to create for him another one of his ‘potions’, it’s clear that the sophisticated Dodd has similar uses for Quell’s feral and brutish response (getting absolutely shit faced) to the world around him.

Anderson sets us on an path that promises to be nothing short of entertaining by introducing both characters over their love for ingesting mind altering ‘potions’. Bonding over their like of getting fucked up, we see that Quell the Brute and Dodd the leader of wannabe intelligentsia both yearn for the same answers to the mysterious force which drives their seemingly polar opposite passions.

And it’s because of these similarities that we can never fully trust Dodd, who we soon learn that beneath his placid surface exists an explosive anger that brilliantly echoes Quell’s more instantaneous displays of savagery. Amy Adams gives a wonderful performance as Dodd’s second wife, Peggy, and her cold and scheming ways really do show that behind any ‘good’ man stands an even ‘greater’ woman.

Andersondom, Scientology, and Milkshakes

The Master proves to be a very worthwhile exercise in Andersondom- its smart, focused, and quite beautiful to look at. However, the intense and progressively narrowing focus of the film causes The Master to act like an enigmatic parable in the relationships between sheep and Shepard, the plights of every service man in a post WWII America, and the unbearable American ‘wandering’ caused by the war.

These ideas are all great and work very well, but we’ve seen Anderson weave together stories that wrap deep symbolisms and ideas together so effortlessly and with such simplicity that The Master plays out like a long chapter from what could have been another overarching and completely crowd engulfing narrative.

I know people have grappled on to the fact that Anderson said that Dodd’s character was largely inspired by Scientology creator L. Ron Hubbard’s story, but I cannot begin to explain how far beyond the point of this film this is. Through the intricate and impressive layering of Dodd’s character, fabulously acted by Hoffman, Anderson makes it clear that The Master is about a time and place where people were so desperate to find a place of belonging and simple believe in something.

The film is about the follower and the faith, the sheep and the shepherd, the slave and the master. Unlike other films that try to test issues of faith and religion, The Master tests a belief system that is completely contemporary and designed to help people cope with problems specifically caused by post WWII America. Fascinating stuff, really, and totally irrelevant of Scientology’s concerns.

 A Superb film, but I’m waiting to have my milkshake drunk up again.


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