You can throw a rock and find a riveting documentary on almost any notorious cult. But in 2012, maestro Paul Thomas Anderson teamed up with screen thespians Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and even a pre-Mr. Robot Rami Malek, for a character-driven investigation of the allure of cults and the malaise of post-war veterans. The result is nothing short of extraordinary.
Which is why The Master is the movie you need to stream on Netflix before it leaves on January 15.
Partially inspired by Scientology's L. Ron Hubbard and partially on the drunken war stories Anderson heard from actor Jason Robards during production of 1999's Magnolia (including soldiers who got drunk off the ethanol from torpedoes), The Master is Anderson's sixth film and maybe his most ignored. Anecdotally, I've talked about other PTA movies like Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood far more than The Master.
But The Master is, pardon the pun, an American masterpiece. Of the many things the movie is about — it is popularly interpreted to be a love story between men — what struck me most was its B-plot about personal loss not of death, but of lost opportunity due to one's cowardice.
In 1950, World War II veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) stumbles upon the boat of a movement called "The Cause," led by the charismatic and enigmatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The two connect over Freddie's unique, homemade cocktail, and Lancaster takes Freddie in as a student. Lancaster's teachings, by the way, purport that we are all capable of reincarnation and that it's possible to "time travel" to moments in our past lives. It's a bunch of baloney, but for Freddie, he yearns to believe in it, or anything really.
But Freddie's rough edges quickly prove difficult for The Cause, with other members — namely Lancaster's wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and his new son-in-law Clark (Rami Malek) — deeming Freddie a liability. But Lancaster insists Freddie stays, which brews conflict. Other familiar faces like Laura Dern and Breaking Bad's Jesse Plemons (hilariously playing Lancaster's son; at least twice characters point out the "resemblance") round out the cast.
Though The Master centers on a cult, it profoundly eschews the typical tropes of the subgenre. (Though Lancaster does break Freddie down to render him almost dependent, which is Cults 101.) Instead, The Master is a riveting odyssey of a lonely man, reminiscent of an Albert Camus protagonist, in search of belonging but doomed to never fit in. He is maybe lost from the start, established via a long montage of Freddie carousing on a beach that borders on Lord of the Flies. But by the end of the movie you may feel sympathy for how much further he's gone into the abyss.
Much of the credit for the film's success is owed to Phoenix, whose Freddie is a proto-Joker without that movie's empty sociopathy.The Master is notably Phoenix's biggest role right after his 2010 mockumentary I'm Still Here which briefly left Phoenix radioactive in Hollywood. The Master is unofficially a comeback for Phoenix, who went on to crush it in Her, You Were Never Really Here, and of course, Joker.
Some big spoilers here, but the specific B-plot that left a crater in my soul was a "missed chance" with a girl from Freddie's hometown, Doris (Madisen Beaty, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). A mere 16-year-old when Freddie leaves his home, Freddie's drunken aimlessness (a scar from his time in war) and personal cowardice sweeps him away, wandering elsewhere. It's only during a spontaneous return home does Freddie learn that he's too late. Suddenly, Doris is 23 and nowhere to be found, and Freddie looks lost and pathetic in her mother's front porch.
It's perhaps rote to mention the emotional crumbling we've all felt throughout Covid-19. But I imagine for many of us, the pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate our personal timelines. Pre-pandemic, we spent each day waking up to go somewhere, or at least had that possibility wide open. Amidst lockdown, we wonder exactly the life events that led us to live in the specific four walls we found ourselves stuck inside. Almost like Freddie, it's a relatable phenomenon to wander over to an ex's or former crush's Instagram and doomscroll to oblivion and ask yourself, Why aren't I with them? What choices did I make that left me here and them so far away? (It's not a healthy thing to do, but no one said this was productive.)
In the end, regardless of your own regrets, The Master stands tall as one of Anderson's finest work — a towering accolade in a filmography that includes bonafide classics. Anderson himself believes The Master is his creative high point, despite the generally muted presence it has in film discourse today. “I’m not sure it’s entirely successful," Anderson said in a 2018 interview with the L.A. Times. "But that’s fine with me. It feels right. It feels unique to me.”
Anderson continued, saying:
"I really hope it will be something people can revisit and enjoy in a way that equals my pride in it. And pride can be a dangerous thing, and I’m not being very quiet about my pride in saying all this. But I just feel really proud of it. And of course, there’s a particular sentimentality attached to it for a number of personal reasons. It’s all wrapped up."
The Master may not be Paul Thomas Anderson's most popular work. But nine years later, it is perhaps unparalleled.
The Master is streaming now on Netflix until January 15 in the U.S.