Review: The Master


The Master

On the strength of its lead performances alone, The Master may be Paul Thomas Anderson's best film ever.

A bold statement, I know. Anderson's strong body of work includes the Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood, as well as Punch-Drunk Love, a film in which he somehow coaxed great acting from Adam Sandler. And The Master isn't even my favorite Anderson movie; that would be the rollicking and surprisingly poignant Boogie Nights. But The Master tops them all for its powerhouse portrayals of a lost soul and his charismatic mentor.

Not-so-loosely based on the early career of Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, The Master explores the relationship between the Hubbard-like Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic drifter who becomes Dodd's right-hand man. After meeting at a shipboard party circa 1950, the two quickly discover a shared willingness to drink most any intoxicant (potentially poisonous or not) and develop an odd friendship -- actually, less a friendship than a tenuous relationship based on Dodd's exploitation of Quell's weaknesses.

The story follows Quell and Dodd's relationship during the rise of the Cause, the Scientology-like organization Dodd founded. The Cause has a legion of true believers who follow its muddled and unscientific philosophies and tenets, all based on a belief in immortality and spiritual healing through a form of counseling resembling hypnotism. Of course, doubt is not tolerated; when Quell begins to question Dodd's integrity and the Cause's validity, his skepticism threatens to destroy their friendship.

Driving The Master is the intense interplay between Quell and Dodd. There is relatively little plot, but Hoffman and Phoenix so dominate the film that a strong story arc isn't necessary. In a performance no doubt destined for an Oscar nod, Hoffman breathes fierce, frightening life into the fierce, frightening figure that is Dodd, the angriest, most manipulative and shrewdest charlatan in recent cinematic memory. But is he just a charlatan? Dodd is so skin-crawlingly convincing that we wonder if he actually believes his ever more bizarre pronouncements. Hoffman's characterization is so complex and subtle, however, that we never really know whether Dodd is drinking his own Kool-Aid.

Phoenix is no less captivating as the booze-addled Quell, and we'll probably see him at the Oscars also. The shell-shocked Navy veteran wanders through the film in a barely functional, alcohol-soaked haze; even in the highly structured world of the Cause, he can't find a direction in life. Phoenix plays Quell far more sympathetically than Hoffman plays Dodd, but often more angrily. He builds walls around himself that even Dodd cannot penetrate forever.

The Master is the sort of visceral film we would expect from Anderson, a potent mix of bold characters, stunning visuals (the film is shot in 70 mm, and looks it) and a sometimes hallucinogenic vibe. Together, these elements draw us into The Master's world the way Dodd draws his followers into the Cause. He is the charismatic anchor of perhaps this year's most charismatic film.

Charismatic or not, I'm not an entirely true believer in The Master. But my complaints are minor. Judicious editing could trim 15 minutes from the film's running time without diminishing its impact. There are too many endings. And I wish Dodd's wife, Peggy (the often underused Amy Adams), had more to do. She hints at having a deceptively powerful role in shaping Dodd's life, but her screen time and character development are limited.

That said, don't let these slight criticisms deter you from seeing The Master. It may not make you believe in the Cause, but it will make you believe that Paul Thomas Anderson is at the height of his filmmaking career.