If you’re looking for a time travel theme in an unexpected place, you’ll find some of that in “The Master.” It’s not going to bring in everyone who went to see “Looper,” the artful crowd pleaser, but it would surprise that demographic. While a serious film dealing with a heavy subject, “The Master” is anything but dull. This film is written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who is known for riveting films like, “There Will Be Blood.” At its core, it is a story about trying to find one’s way in the world and about those who prey on lost souls.
Joaquin Phoenix plays the role of the lost soul, Freddie. Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays the role of Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a cult, who takes on Freddie has his special project. It doesn’t take much observation to conclude that Freddie has little to offer and is going to be very high maintenance once he’s found as a stowaway aboard a vessel that Dodd is currently using. Freddie remains a pretty messed up case a few years out of his time in the Navy during World War II. He has a libido and a thirst for alcohol that are both insatiable and have kept him a train wreck. He isn’t even trying to charm his way into Dodd’s life but, despite it all, Dodd finds him amusing and spots his talent, his ability to concoct highly intoxicating drinks. Dodd doesn’t press Freddie to reveal his ingredients, which include paint thinner. Freddie, in turn, accepts Dodd at face value.
Both Dodd and Freddie are con men and liars. Freddie, to his credit, is more honest about it. His criminality is written on his face and is primitive and, maybe even pure. Dodd’s variety of crime is sophisticated up to a point. It is when someone carefully listens to what Dodd is saying that his limitations are revealed. His own son confides in Freddie that Dodd is a fraud. His lectures and workshops on self-improvement are made up as he goes along, like his assertions that cancer can be cured by time travel. It’s pretty loopy stuff that even Freddie realizes is outrageous.
Freddie proves to be Dodd’s perfect pet, his lap dog. He is welcome to stay for as long as he wants, just as long as he doesn’t, in a manner of speaking, shit in the house. Freddie tries to go one better and acts as Dodd’s fiercely loyal guard dog which is not exactly in anyone’s best interest. This is all fascinating stuff. Dodd appears to hold a privileged status while attempting to stay one step ahead of the law. Freddie appears to be a buffoon while he also seems to have a Rasputin-like power over Dodd and his cult.
It is said time and again that movies are not novels or plays and a film does well not to aspire to the texture and substance of a book. That is, unless a film makes it work. You will see more finely nuanced acting, more extended passages of solid storytelling in “The Master” than you typically see in films, or at least in a major motion picture and it works. While it is easy for some to say that they’d edit a half hour out of this or that movie that is currently touted as excellent, it is another thing for that same smart aleck to say what it is that needs to be cut. With a running time of two and a half hours, “The Master” is one of those films that is vulnerable to those type of snarky remarks. What remains, long after the reviews and the Oscars, will be intriguing entertainment like, “The Master.”