I wonder why. Why a Hollywood filmmaker, known for making entertaining dramas with top acting talent, would be interested in this story.
Apart from a highly convincing performance from Phoenix, I fail to see the meaning behind all of it. What I see is two strong characters butting heads, but also helping each other, entwined in a relentless battle, trying to break each other down.
In a way, this is like a love story, about the lengths some people go to to convince themselves they are simply not crazy. When in fact they are sociopaths, incapable of dealing with the gnawing anxiety of their existence.
I suppose I can analyze both characters and see how much they have in common and where they differ.
But I’d rather look at the filmmaking. The materiality of every shot. They get the period right I assume, very authentic, from the dress style, to the makeup. It has that nostalgic Kodachrome gloss, if you see what I mean. But then again I wouldn’t expect anything less from a high production value project, shot in the IMAX format (double the size of regular 35mm which gives a highly clearer image detecting the smallest details).
As an essay on cinema, it is too convoluted for me to accept it. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is addicted to his own alcohol concoction made from anything he can find, from photo developing chemicals, to perfume, to paint thinner. His behavior is a side effect of constantly ingesting this poisonous and highly intoxicating substance. He’s clearly insane, aggressive, fixated on physical release (through violence and sex).
Why are we made to identify with him? Maybe cinema is the drug we abuse which medicates our psychosis. The director is the Master filmmaker directing his energy to establish an order. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) goes from being a seaman (serving his country), to working as a portrait photographer (representing the audience), to becoming Lancaster’s protege (being directed, exploited, brainwashed). It seems like he can be as much inside of a system (navy officer, Lancaster’s aide), as he can be an outside observer (portrait photographer).
Lancaster Don (Phillip Hoffman) is a phony spiritualist, convinced of possessing an universal truth. So he lays out a spiritual science framework to attract lesser souls to feed upon them and extend his empire. Is this is a metaphor for the Hollywood filmmaker? This kind of dramatic cinema is supposed to encapsulate a particular perspective on life, a spiritual perspective perphaps. But this so-called Master is a phony, he mostly improvises, rips off bits and pieces from other sciences, and his performance is constantly on the verge of tearing at the seams. Some characters, like his son for example, know about the artificial nature of his doctrine, but remain passive. Freddie Quell (Phoenix) seems to hang around, simply because he’s bored, looking for sex, and too lazy to get a real job. The Master is literally his benefactor.
So although I did enjoy the craftier aspects of this film, it didn’t register as an effective story. The emphasis was on the characters and not enough on where they would be headed. It isn’t fair to simply invent these personalities for the duration of a story and leave out a proper conclusion. As it stands, the movie feels unfinished.
But despite all of that, something struck a chord. Maybe this film is about employment. Working for someone, and being privy to see how they exert their influence over people. Lancaster’s spiritual movement is a microcosm of any other kind of organizational social system. Freddie is lonely, without any family, rejected by society, with a history of mental illness. But stupid he’s not. He works for Lancaster, picks up a few of his behavioral traits, and then moves on, satisfied with what he learned, using his new acquired skills to fulfill himself in the smallest ways he knows how. Quite similar to modern notions of employment.
The final image is of Phoenix on the beach embracing a sand sculpture of a woman. This is symbolically the same ending as in Two Lovers (2008), where Joaquin Phoenix is held by his girlfriend. The similarities in the two roles are worth studying.