Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) was in the United States Navy during World War II, which although he can barely grasp it is the reason he started drinking. He doesn't like to dwell on his military service, but he became more interested in alcohol while stationed in the South Pacific than anything else, even going to such lengths as taking the ethanol from the missiles on the ship to consume. It was clear to his superiors and comrades he had a problem, so he was sent to a veteran's hospital where they treated his trauma, but some mental scars run far too deep to heal, and after being discharged, Freddie was set adrift...
Not on the ocean, although he may as well have been, but in life, though being the main character in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie might lead you to expect a dose of upheaval for a main character such as he. When The Master was announced, it quickly became known as the Scientology movie, not because the organisation had funded it but because Anderson's fans were anticipating him taking the lid off L. Ron Hubbard's little enterprise once they heard the plot. Essentially, Philip Seymour Hoffman was essaying the role of a Hubbardesque cult leader and charlatan who takes Freddie under his wing for purposes best known to himself.
But as Hoffman was forced to repeat about a billion times, he didn't think it was a film about Scientology, so which was it? Certainly his Lancaster Dodd character bore many resemblances to the real life Hubbard, but as Anderson would have it his main influence had not been dianetics or some brainwashing moneymaking scam based around convincing its customers of the truth about some pulp sci-fi paperback plots to empower them as he very well could have built his movie around. Indeed, if he had he might have won a better reputation for the work than it received: his diehard adherents wouldn't hear a word against him, but the casual viewer found The Master very tough going no matter how excellent the acting was from the leads, including Amy Adams as Dodd's business-minded wife.
So although we barely saw Freddie in combat, it was really the long shadow of the Second World War which informed his tale, and how he became a problem for society once all the horrors he had witnessed took up residency in his mind, causing him to drink to excess with all the personal mishaps which accompanied that. The manner in which that society coped with his mental illness was to pretty much ignore him and let him get on with things until he was impossible to reject, then move him along if he didn't do so of his own accord, which makes him easy pickings for manipulators such as Dodd. The question we have to ask is whether Dodd is actually doing him any good, or if he's exploiting a vulnerable man for his own power trip, the source of much anguish for Freddie, and more self-satisfaction for his new pal.
Yet there was another question which played on these themes, and that was why would Dodd be tolerating Freddie at all? It can't be down to his way with a powerful cocktail, can it? Freddie just wanders onto his boat, or the boat he's using for his daughter's wedding party at any rate, and the next thing he knows he's waking up the next day to be greeted by the cult leader who we find out has been making inroads into the country's wealthy classes by promising superb results with his self-help course. That this treatment is increasingly tied up with bizarre fantasy elements isn't confronted by anyone in Dodd's life aside from his arrest for misusing someone else's money and one truly great scene where he's doing his hypnotricks on a client and a passerby asks him if he's not some devious deceiver, not in so many words but enough to get a very satisfying rise out of Lancaster. Presented with curious emphasis in each sequence, The Master could be disorientating, but as a loose encapsulation of one man's hopeless confusion and its failure to be cured, it was compelling. Music by Jonny Greenwood.