The film opens on a Pacific beach as the Second World War winds down. Freddie Quell is a sailor prone to violent, alcohol fueled outbursts. Other sailors are freaked out by his behavior. When they return home the men are addressed by an officer who assures them an easy transition to civilian life, as the camera pans a row of terrified faces. Most of them will go on and live meaningful lives. But Freddie has limited prospects in a post-war America of seemingly endless possibilities. He's unable to hold a job or have a meaningful relationship. In the middle of a drunken stupor he comes upon Lancaster Dodd's yacht and finds a safe haven.
Anderson's cinema is a throwback to the 1970s auteurs who upheld anti-heroes as reflections of a society growing increasingly alienated with itself. Anti-heroes serve as avatars for a large segment of society who, in the words of Lancaster Dodd, "have fallen off the proper path." Historians write histories of the postwar with the word "anxiety" inevitably appearing on the titles of their monographs. And for good reason. The state of the world in 1945 with a horrible war ending and onset of the atomic age changed civilization in ways we are just beginning to understand. Today, those years are awash in nostalgia and look "simpler," because they are the past. No one can escape the time period they born into, yet must find their own meaning.
While The Master drew criticism for its fictional portrayal of Scientology, it's more of a story about the desperate search (or even need) for a belief system outside the confines of organized religion or conventional psychology. In Freddie Quell, Dodd sees an opportunity to put his own philosophy to the test. Through "processing" sessions (and other experimental treatments) he forces Freddie to confront past trauma so he can function in society. Their relationship forms the crux of the film. A father-son dynamic develops between them. Their initial processing scene is a tour de force fraught with tension and brilliant acting. From the very start they are alter egos drawn to each other out of a shared recklessness.
Phoenix carries an awkward posture and a muttering speaking style in his sympathetic characterization of Freddie. There's something moving about anyone making an effort to be a better person. Few films have handled isolation with such care. The narrative of World War II remains static in the popular mind: men came back, went to school, got married, raised families, and moved on. But others didn't fare so well. Flashbacks reveal Freddie's innocent relationship with a High School girl he promised to marry are handled with a surprising tenderness. Later he learns she married someone else in a scene of heartbreaking dignity.
Anderson, in two of his previous films, looks at American history: the 1970s porn-industry in Boogie Nights (1997) and capitalism in There Will Be Blood (2007), are character driven, unromantic accounts of the past. So many historical films are just that - too historical. Characters in Anderson's world react to history instead of acting like pawns on a predictable trajectory. There's a number of ways to interpret The Master. It will stand as one of the best films of the decade.