Last night we went to Oakland's magnificent Grand Lake Theater for a screening of Paul Thomas Anderson's film The Master. Anderson's previous work includes There Will Be Blood, and David Thomson panned this effort under the awesome headline "There Will be Dud." But Thomson's is a rare voice of critical dissent; with a Metacritic score of 85%, The Master is riding high.
We counted ourselves among the fans. Set in the early 1950s, The Master tells the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled WWII veteran who finds himself under the spell of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd heads The Cause, a cult that practices analysis of past lives as a means of bringing forth the "future perfect." This is all charlatanism, as Dodd reveals by his boorish and profane behavior whenever challenged. Freddie serves as his enforcer and goon, the muscle-man who squelches any resistance. He does this despite Dodd's humiliating engagement of Freddie in numerous "experiments," or Dodd's money-laundering that leads to an arrest by the Philadelphia police.
Dodd's wife Peggy (Amy Adams) argues that Freddie--a helpless alcoholic--is a blight on The Cause, and asks Dodd to push him away. But Dodd is magnetically drawn to Freddie, even tracking him down from England after Freddie escapes Dodd's clutches and returns to his hometown. Pi Wen noted the co-dependency; Freddie needs Dodd, but Dodd--the ostensible Master--needs Freddie just as much. Freddie becomes the son who likes his father, unlike Dodd's biological son Val (Jesse Plemons). Val knows his father is a fraud, making it up as he goes along.
Dodd's charlatanism is obvious, but not always to himself. He is trapped within the myths of his own devising, far less a master than he claims to be. As Dodd tells Freddie at the end, "If you ever figure out how to be your own master tell us will you? That will be the first time in human history." This is a rare and piercing moment of self-awareness, offered just before Dodd slips back inside his self-created jail.