The Master: Men Lost at Sea


Gen X Review of The MasterThe Master is an undeniably beautiful and well-acted mess of a movie. It’s one of those rare films that gets better the deeper one looks at it, but unfortunately I think most people will be overwhelmed with the movie’s sometimes bloated philosophical musings and self-indulgence.


Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are shockingly good and the cinematography is breathtaking. But the film seems to struggle with its subject – which is homoerotic love, despite the sometimes heavy handed intellectual confetti thrown up – and in the end it’s lost at sea, saying too much about too many things while simultaneously not saying enough about the precise thing it’s about.


Naval vet Freddy Quill (Joaquin Phoenix) is stationed on a lazy island in the South Pacific as World War II comes to a close. A strange loner and drunk, he spends his days wasted and watching the roughhouse of his fellow servicemen.


One day a group of sailors builds a sandcastle in the shape of a woman and Freddy dives right in, copulating with the figure. Later we see him masturbating into the ocean. As part of his discharge, he’s given a battery of Rorschach tests and (surprise, surprise!) identifies every ink blot as a sexual organ. The only time Freddy is not misbehaving like this is when he is drunk.


Wandering into civilian life, he finds that he doesn’t fit in with the world around him. Sinewy, raw and edgy, he drifts from one place to another, but no job is odd enough for this strange little man. His alcoholic concoctions are lethal blends of jet fuel, gin, gasoline… Anything that can mask the psychological and erotic pain that seems to dog him.


Freddy jumps a docked yacht and crashes a wedding party hosted by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd, a charismatic cult leader, is intrigued by Freddy. The drifter is unencumbered and asocial, a sort of mindless animal. Dodd’s cult (“The Cause”), believes that humans are spiritual beings trapped in material flesh, and Freddy becomes a test case for their philosophy.


Adrift in the ocean, Dodd and Freddy circle each other; the only reference point is the vanishing horizon. The sea is a dangerous place for lost men, primarily because it is no place at all, and all sorts of kooky ideas ferment between the two while they’re untethered to land.


What begins in psychological tests and hypnosis sessions blossoms. Freddy becomes very protective of Dodd, although he can scarcely understand a lot of what the windbag is saying. Dodd and his family teach Freddy how to control his outbursts. For them, his drinking is the root cause of his problems, and he does appear to improve as they conduct tests on him.


Freddy becomes part of Dodd’s entourage, moving among the well-heeled dabblers of New York City like a whisper in the machine, so insubstantial that he could easily be a ghost. When the cult’s psycho-spiritualism is attacked, he fights on its behalf and even ends up in jail. He used to fight for nothing; now his is so committed to an idea that he would lose his freedom over defending it.


The Cause drifts as Dodd becomes more interested in Freddy. Originally the cult leader believed that past-life regression would allow individuals to free themselves of bondage that went back many eons. But the program changes and shifts its beliefs. Before, the teaching tied man to an ancient struggle against former selves. Now its mission is more amorphous and ambitious: How do we free ourselves completely to imagine ourselves as we could be?


As fascinating as this is, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Freddy’s development.


Dodd believes his hocus pocus is working, but in reality Freddy is just erotically attached to the older man. This new homoerotic relationship eclipses Freddy’s unresolved sexual trauma. He no longer acts out because he is no longer fighting that old dragon; the committed relationship he has with Dodd permits him to see his failed erotic and romantic relationships in a new light.


But Dodd and his wife seem to understand the nature of his relationship with Freddy. In a very weird scene, Dodd’s pregnant wife, acting as a dominatrix, masturbates him over a sink while making him promise “to give up the boy’s hooch.” (Hooch being phonetically related to the slang term cooch, bringing us near the true threat she sees in the men’s relationship: that Freddy offers an alternative sexuality to her husband.) Near the end of the film the cult leader croons a love song to Freddy, a sort of fairy tale about the life the men could lead if they were alone at sea.


The film’s blustering rhetoric is hard to sit through at times, especially if you have unpleasant or persistent traumatic memories of the New Age movement of the 1970s and ’80s. (Dodd is so obviously based on L. Ron Hubbard that the Church of Scientology has sent a deadly whammy out to the producers of the film.) The philosophical misdirection is so overstated that many people will leave this film without recognizing it is about the power of a simple boy-crush.

There’s some heavy thinking here obscuring the film’s main point, and I don’t know if it’s intellectual dishonesty or real repression that leads the filmmakers away from exploring the homosexual relationship central to the plot. Whatever the reason, they certainly heap a lot of shit over the topic in an attempt to distract us.


This detritus becomes the film and we lose the characters in quasi-intellectual fog. Stumbling blindly we hold on to the wonderful acting and awesome design, unable to really even explain what the movie was about. Like Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, it ends up signifying the limits of what can be said and falls back into gestures that satisfy us primarily because they assure us that we are deep enough to appreciate them as pure aesthetic expression.


(Whatever that means.)


What a beautiful mess, we’ll say as we leave the film, not naming the love that still cannot be named in our society today. In the end, Freud is the ghost on the ocean, whispering ‘you still are not the master of your own house’.


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