Who is the Master? Is it Lancaster Dodd, the cult leader played by Philip Seymour Hoffman? Or is it his wife, quietly pulling his strings? Or could it even be Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Freddie Quell, a drifter who concocts cocktails out of whatever substances he can get his hands on, a bit of a magician.
When he hides out on a boat after being accused of poisoning a man with one such cocktail, he finds himself on Dodd’s boat, and is welcomed to attend Dodd’s daughter’s wedding on board, later that day. Dodd takes an immediate liking to him, saying that Quell seems so familiar to him, and also expresses admiration for what he drank out of Quell’s flask. It seems strange that Dodd would take to Quell so quickly, a stowaway who seems shady, and is subject to violent outbursts. But then also it might seem odd that Quell also takes to Dodd, too. When Dodd questions him according to the methods of The Cause, Quell can’t get enough. Their intense back and forth is appropriately followed by a cocktail and a cigarette.
The relationship between these two men is both master/acolyte and father/son, with a bit of star-crossed lovers. They each represent an aspect of American identity, seemingly opposites, neither one particularly positive, but romantic and and somehow sympathetic despite all. It’s telling that things just aren’t the same when they move to England.
The film is particularly novelistic. It felt more like reading than watching. I lost track of time completely the way you can when you’re immersed in a book. Whether or not the story or characters appeal to you, whether it all adds up to anything for you, it still provides so much to discuss and contemplate and reconsider. Who is the Master? Perhaps it Paul Thomas Anderson.