The Master written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (The Weinstein Company, Ghoulardi Film Company, Annapurna Pictures, R, 144 minutes)

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams.

The Boat and Its Prop Wash

Praise be to a boat. Its ability to move from point A to point B. Its revolutionary ability to float despite comprised of non-floating materials.

Praise be to the captain. A sailor with capable hands. A firm direction. A destination and a plan to get there.

But what about the water? It has no say in the matter. In fact, one might even consider it an obstacle. Without it, there’d be no need to develop a boat. Water is the passive substance gliding beneath the hull, a malleable liquid disturbed by rotating propeller, gushing like molten lava in dense swirls behind the mission-focused boat.

Prop wash, given its place as the opening scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, seems to be a central metaphor—it speaks to the relationship between boat and water.

An Unfettered Man

The Master follows its protagonist, World War II veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), as he struggles to make ends meet upon returning from the war. Sexually deviant and alcohol dependent, Freddie meanders from job to job in a haze. His transient existence finds stability when he stows away on the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a spiritual leader of a metaphysical religion called “The Cause,” clearly a reference to Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

Invited into the group by Dodd, Freddie begins to submit to the tenets of this unique faith, especially after Dodd invites Freddie into an exercise called “processing” where Dodd asks numerous pointed questions in order to unlock Freddie’s psychological state.

A Leader and an Acolyte

After this time on Dodd’s yacht, Freddie follows Dodd and his family through many stops on an East Coast tour as they proselytize for the Cause. Even though Freddie is drawn to this spiritual way, his anger and drunkenness continue to wreak havoc.

As the Cause increases its pressure on Freddie, he faces difficult decisions with his life without certainty that any direction offers the ultimate cure-all.

On Power and Relationships

For me, the most interesting portion of The Master resides in the relationship between Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell. Throughout the film, we see the power dynamic between a man in charge of his demeanor, his relationships, and even his acolytes. On the other side, we see a man at rock bottom. A person without family, friends, love, or direction.

With such a dynamic, it’s clear to see how the one-sided nature of power distorts what could be a rewarding relationship. When Freddie, a broken man in need of nurturing care, receives harsh obloquy, his psyche shatters. Whatever progress made against his addiction falters like a sandcastle against the approaching tide.

Navigating the Open Sea

And precisely for this reason, the relationship between boat and water sticks in my head. Dodd, the master, or even better for this metaphor, the captain, presses forward to a distant goal on the horizon. He engages his propellers at full speed and drives forward. Yet, Freddie represents the water. Not only is he the foundation upon which someone like Lancaster Dodd can “float,” but also Dodd’s one directional focus carves Freddie to pieces. What was a body reactionary to whatever the current weather is now broken whitewash, disturbed, unfettered, and mixed up.

The Master is a film with considerable depth. Whether the question of the spiritual realm or the influence of the war on a generation of vets, this film holds a multitude of themes that could be discussed. But for me, it’s all about the relationship between a boat and the water upon which it floats. Both hold considerable power. Both need each other. One abuses the other to get where it needs to go.

If you’re interested in a film that makes you think, check out The Master.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

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