A story of war, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is vibrantly and colourfully created, clashing with the dark and serious issues dealt with in the narrative. Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War Two soldier, returns home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The film briefly covers his time within a military hospital but focuses mainly upon his life after his release. Freddie is a lost soul, a sex-obsessed alcoholic with aggressive tendencies, who struggles to fit into society until he crosses paths with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a religious leader who takes Freddie under his wing, and also takes advantage of his damaged and impressionable mind.
Peace may have been declared at the end of the Second World War, but many of the soldiers found no peace of their own and were left psychologically scarred. This theme is momentarily covered at the beginning of The Master. The film is clearly constructed to reflect the experiences of the real veterans recorded in the World War Two documentary Let There Be Light (1946). The Master uses direct quotations from the psychiatrists and servicemen. It even replicates their mannerisms, as seen in Phoenix’s stunning performance where subtle postures, gestures and facial expressions hint at the struggle to control deep inner problems.
Freddie’s war with his inner demons, expertly portrayed in a series of scenes in which he is trying to adjust to normal life, forms the film’s second major conflict. Freddie is aggressive even when unprovoked; he has an extremely high libido and does not comply with socially accepted conduct. His PTSD gives him an unsettling demeanour which is conveyed to the audience with the use of unconventionally long takes in several scenes. Indeed, Anderson keeps the camera rolling during uncomfortable and awkward moments, a technique which works exceedingly well as it successfully conveys to the audience the difficulties servicemen face in readjusting to civilian life, particularly when suffering with PTSD.
The final significant conflict depicted in the film is the age-old battle surrounding religion. The majority of the film focuses on Lancaster, a religious leader and powerful public-speaker who preaches his beliefs with conviction and flair. The dialogue is especially eloquent in this section, and Anderson chose wisely in casting Philip Seymour Hoffman as the larger-than-life Lancaster. It becomes apparent later in The Master that Lancaster’s religion does not have the strong foundation he claims it does, but weak and impressionable Freddie just needs something to believe in — anything that will keep him afloat. The relationship between Lancaster and Freddie mirrors Freddie’s addiction to alcohol, a poison that he continually returns to in order to escape his troubles. Freddie is stuck in his old ways, once a soldier of war, now a soldier of religion.
Even though the film only slightly touches on the Second World War, focusing primarily on the powerful religious influence Lancaster has on Freddie, the main underlying theme is conflict. Anderson’s filmmaking is beautiful, well-constructed and very complex and thought-provoking. The initial impression is that it is unnecessarily slow at points and that it never seems to reach a climax. However, The Master is not a film for those seeking mindless entertainment, but one that requires close engagement and deep thought. It is a journey, not a story with a traditional beginning, middle and end. The Master does not need to dramatise its journey using a rigid structure that contains a rounded-off conclusion. The characters’ journeys will continue past what we are shown and the battles in their lives will go on.