The Master

Sep 21, 2012

Masterful performances from Philip Seymour Hofman and Joaquin Phoenix.

The Master
Grade: B
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood)
Screenplay: Anderson
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line)
Rating: R
Runtime: 137 min.
by John DeSando

"He's making all this up as he goes along. You don't see that?"

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master doesn’t let you see “that’ clearly; nor is it clear that L. Ron Hubbard’s scientological world is really the subject of this character study. What is apparent, for sure, is that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd is a brilliant leader with outré beliefs, and his henchman-acolyte Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is as much Caliban (The Tempest’s rude beast man with aspirations)  to Dodd’s Prospero (The Tempest’s magician ruler) as Tom Cruise with his couch antics is to Hubbard. Quell is Dodd’s Frankenstein, a creation impossible to tame.

Dodd is a 1950’s faith-based leader espousing a philosophy denigrating science in favor of a theory that the earth, trillions of years old, is a repository for humans who contain many past lives with their attendant problems and traumas. Tame those debilitations and the world will be peaceful and disease free. 

The Master is not the most entertaining film of the year, but it is the most intellectually demanding with two of the most powerful performances of the year from Hoffman and Phoenix. Hoffman underplays the charisma of a cult leader, opting rather for a paternal approach that lets itself go rarely, for instance when he indulges in the drink concoction Quell makes for him.  As the quote at the beginning of this review hints, some in his retinue question his authenticity.

Phoenix’s Quell is the opposite of Dodd: visceral, animal, and untamed.  Having suffered the traumas of WWII, he is seeking meaning in his life after drifting aimlessly in an amoral life of excessive drinking and brutishness, best expressed when he masturbates on a female sand sculpture in front of a Pacific Beach crowd.

The Master is another masterful production of Paul Thomas Anderson, whose There Will Be Blood had the same kind of off-center protagonist and whose Magnolia had a Scientology-related Tom Cruise, who must be pleased that Scientology got a pass in this film.

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at
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