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Ambitious but mediocre ‘Master’ leaves viewers wanting

“The Master” (2012). Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek, Madisen Beaty, Kevin J. O’Connor, Patty McCormack, Christopher Evan Welch. Director: Paul Thomas Anderson. Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson. www.themasterfilm.com/

Getting a handle on that which does not serve us is one of the greatest personal growth challenges that many of us will face in life. Achieving control over such matters often pushes us to take steps we never thought ourselves capable of, a journey that often includes both victories and setbacks on our way to attaining proficiency. One man’s search for that goal is the subject of one of this year’s most anticipated releases, director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.”

Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has many challenges upon returning home from World War II. While the specifics of his military service go undisclosed, it becomes apparent during his reorientation sessions with Veterans Administration psychiatrists that he witnessed some gruesome sights that seriously affected his mental state. Of course, Freddie’s psyche wasn’t in the greatest shape when he went off to war; his childhood was characterized by an absent father and an institutionalized mother, and as an adult he was infatuated with a bright but underage romantic interest (Madisen Beaty). This combination of experiences has led to Freddie becoming something of a social misfit, one who routinely partakes in excessive drinking (including concoctions that contain alcohol mixed with various industrial chemicals), inappropriate sexual advances and unprovoked violent outbursts. He also drifts from job to job, doing stints as a department store portrait photographer and as a seasonal farm worker, positions that invariably end in failure.

Freddie’s life takes an unusual and unexpected turn, however, when, upon fleeing one of his failed jobs, he inadvertently winds up as a stowaway aboard a ship carrying the followers of an enigmatic religious movement known as “the Cause.” Heading up this band of latter-day disciples is its charismatic leader, writer/philosopher/physicist Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is more fondly known as “the Master.” Despite Freddie’s stowaway status, the Master is quite taken by his mysterious uninvited passenger, particularly for the inebriating potions he creates, a talent that keeps Freddie in his host’s good graces.

Of course, Freddie’s pardon comes at a cost; he becomes an unwitting apostle of the Cause, a belief system that incorporates a wide array of concepts and philosophies (many of them cryptic) that only the Master and his quietly controlling wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), seem to fully understand. But then that shouldn’t really come as a surprise, mainly because the movement’s teachings, as implemented, are aimed more at manipulating followers than offering them genuine salvation, circumstances that make gullible or challenged aspirants, like Freddie, easy targets for exploitation.

As time passes, however, the Cause experiences its own share of problems – accusations of embezzlement and mind control, as well as allegations of intimidation and strong-arm retaliation against its detractors (facilitated by goon squads led by blinded followers like Freddie, who willingly volunteer for such tasks, and even initiate such behavior, to stay in favor with the Master). With the world seemingly closing in on them, the movement’s leaders take to the road, in part to spread the word to the uninitiated but also in hopes of avoiding prosecution, a journey that takes them to New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix and England. But, as the Cause comes under increased scrutiny and once-loyal parishioners (Patty McCormack, Laura Dern) begin to abandon their faith, its leadership and doctrines grow progressively inflexible, even dogmatic. Eventually even Freddie falls victim to the tactics that the Cause employs to silence its critics and that the Master uses to get his way.

Will Freddie succumb, or will he rise above the ordeals inflicted upon him? But, perhaps even more importantly, will he at last become the master of his own destiny, or will he allow his personal demons and their minions to continue ravaging his mind, body and soul?

As movies go, “The Master” is quite an ambitious undertaking. In addition to telling its story, the film attempts to cover a lot of metaphysical territory through its narrative. For instance, one of core teachings of the Cause is that we are all imperfect beings capable of rising up above our animal natures by getting clear about ourselves and our beliefs and taking actions that help us overcome personal limitations, thereby enabling personal growth. The Cause further maintains that many of these personal hindrances stem from reincarnational baggage that we carry with us from lifetime to lifetime and that their resolution inevitably permits our forward progress.

Those who have studied conscious creation will no doubt recognize the parallels between this philosophy and the core principle of the Cause, that rewriting our beliefs is key to transcending our personal limitations. What’s more, anyone who has examined the doctrines of Eastern religions or the works of Edgar Cayce will see the karmic past life parallels between those disciplines and comparable teachings of the Cause. And both of these notions, when considered on a rudimentary level, certainly seem reasonable enough to lend credence to the principles behind the Cause.

However, as in any belief system, when the core concepts become wrapped up in scripture, ritual and protocol, the central message tends to become lost amidst the trappings of the structures built up around it. What arguably began with the best of intentions evolves into an institution more preoccupied with its own self-preservation than with offering meaningful, helpful advice to its followers. Dogma sets in, and, when allowed to run unchecked, the institution deteriorates into a cult, where its members are kept in line with threats, coercion and intimidation.

To that end, “The Master” does an excellent job in portraying the danger inherent in this. When a philosophical/spiritual system allows its followers the freedom to make their own choices, it serves to empower them and enable personal growth. But when it degenerates into a rigid institution driven by considerations of personality, protocol and self-perpetuation, it becomes a potentially grave influence, a serious threat to one’s own self-determination and well-being.

Of course, as conscious creators readily maintain, we each create our own reality, for better or worse, so, if one materializes such circumstances in one’s life, it’s a manifestation that arises from one’s own hand (or, more accurately, from one’s own mind). Why someone might do so would seem to defy logic, reason or even prudent judgment, but then we all have our own personal reasons for why we manifest what we do. The challenge for us is recognizing the underlying basis for doing so and determining what to do about it going forward. Such thinking, at a core level, is once again in line with the teachings of the Cause. But when that thinking becomes obscured by the dogmatic fog typically associated with a cult (as depicted here), we run the risk of the revelations about our personal manifestations remaining hidden, either longer than necessary or perhaps even indefinitely.

One plausible explanation why outcasts like Freddie would create the difficult circumstances they experience is the need to learn lessons in mastery and control (especially self-control). Freddie’s example, for instance, effectively illustrates an individual’s creation of conditions that make it possible to acquire skills in mastering and controlling one’s urges (which, in Freddie’s case, take many forms). It’s also understandable, under such circumstances, how he would be drawn to an organization and a mentor who embody the journey involved in fulfilling those aspirations. His manifestation may not be without its added challenges (such as the Cause’s coercive and manipulative mind control tactics), but then that could all be part of what Freddie is ultimately seeking to achieve – mastery and control over his existence that comes from his own efforts and not the prescribed insistence of others.

In this regard, Freddie’s hoped-for goals must originate with him, not with some “outside” influence, be it an individual, organization or philosophy. It’s easy to see how he might be drawn to such influences, given his traumatic childhood (he’s obviously looking for the “family” he never had, a theme common in many of Anderson’s films) and the disturbing wartime events he recently witnessed (travesties that no doubt prompted a personal search for meaning, the kind that one might hope to find through an institution like a religious organization). But, no matter what semblance of assistance these influences might appear to provide, they ultimately fall short of the target. (Freddie even receives clues about this, such as through comments about the Cause from the Master’s son, Val (Jesse Plemons), who freely observes that his father “is making it all up as he goes along.”) In the end, then, Freddie’s search for gaining control over his life ultimately rests with him; he must assert his own individuality and do his own work, no matter how difficult that may prove to be.

From the foregoing, one might be led to believe that “The Master” is a treasure trove of metaphysical wisdom in both enlightening and cautionary ways. And, given the considerable early awards season buzz it has been receiving (thanks to lavish critical praise and film festival wins), one might think it to be epic cinema. However, for all its noble intents, the film, unfortunately, comes up short, and that’s mainly due to its writing. The picture’s nuggets of insight (and there are many of them) are often eclipsed by a meandering screenplay and a number of underdeveloped subplots, such as the struggle between Freddie and the Master for dominance in their relationship (one that incorporates elements running the gamut from father-son dynamics to unexplored homoeroticism) and Peggy’s control freak tendencies in both marital and institutional affairs. Events tend to become repetitive, too (one can only watch Freddie’s unpredictable tirades so many times before they begin to lose their impact). There are also many less-than-veiled allusions to the back story supposedly behind the establishment of a contemporary religious movement, many of which arise seemingly inexplicably and only serve to blur the script’s focus even further.

Nevertheless, in spite of these shortcomings, the film features a number of superb performances (especially Hoffman and Adams), as well as visually stunning cinematography and a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. It also brilliantly captures the look and feel of early 1950s America through its top-notch art direction, set design and costuming.

In all fairness, “The Master” is an impressive piece of filmmaking, even if its execution could have been handled better. Some have even contended that its “scattered” approach is intentional, reinforcing its message of the need for each of us to find our own path in learning how to achieve mastery and control in our lives. I suppose there’s some merit to that, though, to me, that sounds more like rationalization than rationale. Had the filmmakers focused their efforts more effectively, they might have ended up with a picture that genuinely lived up to its billing – and its title.

Copyright © 2012, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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