quell transitive verb \ˈkwel\ - to thoroughly overwhelm and reduce to submission or passivity.
To paraphrase Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman, "every leader needs a son-of-a-bitch, and I'm his (Nixon's)" Just as Nixon had Haldeman, Bill Clinton had Dick Morris, and LBJ had Bobby Baker, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the titular Master of Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film, has Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who appeals to the leader's baser instincts, and who does the bits of dirty work that might ordinarily sully his reputation.
The relationship between these two men, the cerebral Dodd and the animal-like Quell, forms the core of the movie. We meet Quell first, at the end of World War II, relaxing and biding time with his fellow sailors as hostilities have finished and they are waiting to leave for home. We learn he has something of an awkward relationship with women, and that he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He wanders from job to job for several years, always an outsider, never knowing his place. Then, by chance, he meets Dodd, and their lives are changed as their destinies become intertwined. I say "destinies" with deliberateness, as Dodd is the leader of a nascent movement (read, "cult") that believes that humans, or their spirits to be precise, have been around for over a trillion years, that everyone has had many past lives, and that humans are bound by their destinies. (If any of this sounds familiar, there's a reason for that).
Quell becomes Dodd's premier disciple, in the sense that he is the person most wholly devoted to Dodd as a person and a leader. Dodd's wife Peggy (Amy Adams) several times questions her husband's theories, pointing out logical inconsistencies or breaks from past dogma, while his son Val (Jesse Plemons) dismisses the entire enterprise out-of-hand, once telling Quell that The Master is "making this all up as he goes along."
But Quell has none of these doubts; he's seen what it's like to have nothing to live for, and Dodd gives his life purpose. As someone whose life has been a series of failures, lacking in goals or community, Dodd’s cult and the group that forms around it is just what he needs. What gives the narrative life is the reciprocal need that Dodd has for Quell. As much as the Master preaches and exhorts against the animal aspects of humanity, it is precisely these animal qualities that attracts the scholarly Dodd to his unpolished acolyte. The two form an unholy bond, one that worries Dodd’s family and other disciples. They see Quell as a negative influence, not just on Dodd himself, but also his movement. Ultimately, Dodd probably comes to the same realization; by the film’s end he has come to understand that Quell is an animal force that cannot be contained, and that, for the good of his movement the two must separate.
In many ways, The Master is both a parallel film and a sequel to PTA's previous work, the oil-and-religion-soaked masterwork There Will Be Blood. Both deal with the relationships and conflicts between religion and faith on the one hand, and capitalism, power, and greed on the other. While There Will Be Blood's Daniel Plainview is more overtly ambitious than The Master's Lancaster Dodd, both carry the weight of modern American history on their back, and both seem implicitly aware of this. Whether or not Anderson is consciously trying to create a treatise on the twin American obsessions of faith and greed, he has certainly given us two magnificent movies in a row that present American individualists at their greatest and worst.
Also, like There Will Be Blood, The Master has some of the best acting in any American film of recent memory. Not content with one performance of the stature of Daniel Day Lewis' this time, Anderson gives us twin performances, by Phoenix and Hoffman, that could each claim a best acting award next Spring. And, again, Anderson's film is accompanied by a masterful score by Jonny Greenwood, quickly establishing himself as one of the finest film composers working today.