Year Released: 2012
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jaoquin Phoemix, Amy Adams
(R, 138 min.)
"It is not disbelief that is dangerous to our society; it is belief." George Bernard Shaw
All that talent to such little little effect. Like a precocious adolescent The Master doesn't know if it wants to be a sly documentary or a Sturm und Drang psycho drama. It is both compelling and confoundedly coy.
But the acting is superb, especially Joaquin Phoenix's Oscar worthy portrayal of Freddie Quell, a returning WWII sailor flirting with the abyss. His opening scene sets the tone. While other sailors frolic on a pristine beach killing time, Freddie keeps his distance, diligently using a huge knife to slice coconuts and almost his hand as well. But he is drawn into the group when he spots their life-size anatomically correct sand babe resting near the waves. At first the sailors cheer on his feigned embrace of it, but his simulated sex act becomes a little too graphic even for these sea hardened men, and we as well as they are repulsed.
So, too, with Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of Lancaster Dodd, an eccentric spiritual leader many say is modeled after the Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. What is it with these pretentious triple names, anyway? Have we wandered across the pond to the UK where a three-pronged nomenclature adds the same amount of class as the old public school tie?
At any rate, Hoffman seems especially suited to play sleazy and reptilian characters. We have seen him plagued by small living and pathetic sins, ruthlessly amoral, debauched and manipulative, and charismatic and compromised. His Lancaster Dodd is equally complex and flawed. He is unctuous and soothing, his honey tongue almost hypnotic when he first encounters the young Freddie Quell as a stowaway on his ship. Full of himself as well as bonhomie, he welcomes the wedding guests gathered on his lavish steamer (we later find out it is merely borrowed from a wealthy friend), but he turns taciturn and peevish when his methods are questioned. Not everyone is willing to accept his contention that prenatal experiences can cause us to act irrationally. But Dodd believes his prenatal guided trances can cure just about everything, even leukemia. It can eliminate man's beast within as well.
No wonder he welcomes Freddie, the epitome of that very brutish state. Freddie is the supreme test of his rambling philosophy, the case his ego will not let him resist even as Freddie's violent assaults on perceived enemies to the Cause threaten its very existence.
Both leads do all they can with an uneven script. And for all the talk of Dodd's ego or Freddie past incestuous encounters, I find that a film written, directed, and co-produced by the same individual begins to reek of both these very same flaws.
The root of Freddie's compulsions are only hinted at -- a mother now institutionalized for mental illness, a father now dead from alcoholism, and the military talking around what is now accepted as post traumatic stress syndrome. Somehow I longed for more, the complete Freudian package from that same era that Hitchcock exploited in his psychological studies, Marnie and Spellbound, and Strangers on a Train. Even without a clear diagnosis, however, Phoenix's Freddie flashes his psycho-neurotic state with his whole being.
There is an unspoken eloquence in the haunted eyes and furrowed brow, the way he walks with sunken chest and arms hooked behind his back, like a broken-winged crow pacing the pavement for that forsaken crumb or glittery wrapper. It is a performance that almost matches Ralph Fiennes' exquisite interpretation of Spider, a schizophrenic probing the shadows of the human psyche.
The script becomes as enigmatic and coy as Amy Adams playing Dodd's wife, an iron fist in a velvet glove. Why is she, very visibly pregnant, as well the assorted female guests in a drawing room filled with well-heeled fellow believers, suddenly completely naked on screen? All that while the fully clothed men continue listening to Dodd's rather animated rendition of "I will Go a Roving." Not even the hint of a maidenly blush or roguish stare? Is this some form of male dominance, or maybe a way to quash the innate beast within? Not even a hint of explanation is offered, not for that nor for Mrs. Dodd's deadpan reading of a pornographic text to Freddie offered as a sort of catechism. I guess we would have the Sunday schools and pews overflowing if those practices became mainstream.
Its ramblings and ambiguities aside, The Master is a cautionary tale about the dangers of unquestioning belief and the cult mentality that it creates. That so many so-called intellectuals in the film swallow Dodd's Kool Aid with only the brutish and instinctual Freddie Quell resisting says perhaps more than we would like to admit about the state of human credulity in our past, our present, and our future.
One of Freddie's questionable talents is his skill in making homemade hooch. His sources for this postwar white lightning are -- shall we say -- problematic, though. Some of it is drained by the ship's engine, and we see a container of paint thinner residing next to the canned peaches that he uses to flavor his latest batch. While Freddie doesn't seem to have problems with these concoctions, the elderly cabbage picker he shares it with passes out and doesn't show any signs of reviving when the rest of the workers run him off the work camp.
He takes refuge on a passing steamship, one under the stewardship of Lancaster Dodd. When Freddie wakes up from an alcoholic daze, he is no longer a refugee, but a welcome guest. Perhaps a little of that welcome is due to the remaining contents of the peach liqueur left in Freddie's flask, which Dodd, quite frankly admits he has imbibed. It is this delightful if not dangerous hooch, that first creates the bond between the two very different men.
Here is a recipe for your own Homemade Hooch. But not to worry. Ours relies on Vodka and Brandy for its kick, not paint thinner or engine drippings. Bottoms up.
Homemade Hooch: Peach Liqueur
Plan at least 4 weeks in advance to make this peach liqueur before it is ready to drink. Great for gifts.
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
2 pounds fresh ripe peaches, stemmed and washed
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon orange zest
1-1/2 cups 100-proof vodka
1 cup brandy
4 drops yellow food coloring
In a heavy saucepan, boil sugar and water over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Do not let the mixture burn. When the sugar is completely dissolved and the syrup is clear, remove from heat and let cool down to about 110 degrees F., little more than lukewarm.
Slice peaches in half and twist halves opposite each other to separate and remove the pit and set it aside. (Do not discard.) Thinly slice the peaches. Place peaches, peach pit, lemon zest, and orange zest into a clean 2-quart glass canning jar. Add the cooled sugar syrup, vodka,brandy, and food coloring. Seal with an airtight lid. Turn jar top to bottom in one full revolution to gently mix. Place in a cool, dark place for two weeks.
Strain out solids through a fine mesh sieve. Pour peach liqueur into a clean jar, seal, and let stand another 2 to 3 weeks in a cool, dark place. Strain a final time through a double layer of cheesecloth or other filter into a decanter or decorative sealable bottle.
This tasty liqueur makes a wonderful gift from the kitchen.
Yield: 1 quart