Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine has wonderful insights into this film. I recommend reading his review here and I recommend watching the film as well.
Certain moments in the film made me feel awkward. Not because of their tastelessness or taboo effect, but because I had trouble figuring them out. Many in the audience must have felt the same way as I heard various knee-jerk reactions and remarks to significant others expressing their confusion with a smirk. Yet something about this film reached a pitch of apparent brilliance. I just couldn’t label it.
As the film proceeded, my proverbial grasp of themes and ideas reshaped themselves. Due to monumental performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the film itself seemed like a sort of living thing – always in motion, always changing, never dwelling on an idea without delving deeper into its meaning and morphing from seed to forest. As soon as I trusted Dodd as a savior of sorts, he proved to need saving himself. I watched Quell, the man necessary to comparatively exemplify Dodd’s mastery, become the key holder.
Quell wallows in sexual baseness and violent tendencies, his crude style of wondering through a lonely life. Dodd introduces a sort of mysticism shrouded in scientific rhetoric which allegedly unleashes the perfect state of mankind. Phoenix’s perverse behavior and shocking actions reach an uncomfortable extremity, artistically and unreservedly displaying elemental reflexes of human tendencies unchecked by any allegiance to systems of morals or beliefs, while Hoffman’s character builds a desperate method of conquering isolation with equally extreme and shocking methods though he dresses them in civility, selflessness and wisdom – designed, yes, to “free” Quell from his slavery to base human urges but neglecting to recognize the humanity within Quell. Both paths reach shocking extremes and as Anderson eases the viewer into the minds of each man, first one then the other, the similarities and equal footing of each becomes increasingly obvious even though we hope Dodd can reach down and help Quell and Quell illustrate the farce of Dodd’s processing.
Peter Travers discusses humanity’s insatiable driving force toward belonging, our tendency to burrow into institutions, no matter how extreme, in order to feel kinship with our fellow man. Of course, this theme permeates the entire film and Anderson explores every good and evil nook present and resulting from this force. However, the film not only explores Phoenix’ void, but Hoffman’s as the master. Where Freddie Quell stumbled upon the institution and burrowed in, Dodd created it – yet assuredly for the same reasons. Both men felt a loneliness, an isolation from their fellow man. One found reprieve while the other created it. In this same sense, the two men become congruous to each other, different shades of the same man, entirely dependent on the other’s successes in seeking out the demise of loneliness and isolation. The master and follower become one in their search for the same reprieve.
The film not only explores humanities moth-like attraction to institutions, but the micrchosm of that same concept between two individual people. Perhaps our sense of purpose, meaning, existing as part of something greater than ourselves, lures us to grandiose institutions and distracts us from personal connection, which, in all likelihood, could cure our ailments. We focus on the seduction of the institution while neglecting the benefit of kinship with one other. The film evolves to one final conversation, one last interaction – not between a man and an institution, a man and a set of ideas and beliefs – but between one man and another. During this conversation, Dodd and Quell alone in an office, away from community and institution, Dodd illustrates to Quell how he might have to live without a master, and in so doing, be the first in human history to accomplish such a feat. However, the master, inadvertently, has created a world around himself in which he has no master either. We yearn for group belonging, to be governed by belief systems which align us with entire societies, but perhaps a single relationship, finding one person to share in our longing and add what we miss, would be sufficient. No masters, just connection.