Film review: The Master

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 March, 2013, 10:36am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 March, 2013, 10:36am

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Category: III

It’s hard to tell if Philip Seymour Hoffman’s titular character in The Master is a visionary or a fraud, but it’s clear there’s something very compelling and powerful about him. That just about sums up Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie as well.

The introverted director is emerging as this generation’s Terrence Malick, making penetrating and clinically obsessive stories that probe the deep, dark corners of the American psyche. As with There Will Be Blood, Magnolia and Boogie Nights, The Master is a film you have to admire even if you may not like or comprehend it.

Set just after the second world war, it stars Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a burgeoning cult with wealthy followers. Preaching self help mumbo jumbo based on recalling past lives and a healing “process” of pseudocatechismal free association, the character is modelled on – but too reductionist to just be – Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

He strikes up an unlikely friendship with Freddie Quell, Joaquin Phoenix’s damaged naval wretch with a major drinking problem. Quell is an aimless loser with a twitched mouth, a hunched posture and lust in his loins. As a bit of a simpleton, he might be ripe for manipulation but the relationship is not as simple as that. In fact, it is hard to figure out what Dodd sees in him other than a guy who can distil a cocktail from diesel fuel. The unclear motivation becomes the film’s main befuddling fascination. “You’re my guinea pig and protégé,” Dodd says at one point.

Then again, this is not a simple drama. It’s neither a critique of cults nor religious fervour. No one changes from believing to rejecting the cause in typical dramatic turnaround. Anderson is not interested in obvious character studies. But look hard enough and the two men are actually more alike than different. Their push and pull dynamic is a curious psychological bromance of passive-aggressive neediness and resistance. Whatever their status, it’s never just master and servant. In a way, both are complex charlatans on the fringe, as much lost as found, trying to find a way by hook or by crook.

When asked what he is, Dodd replies “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.” Now that’s a line designed for seduction. The big difference is one character is trying to get into people’s heads, while the other is more interested in getting into women’s pants. 

Much like Hoffman’s charismatic cult founder, Anderson constructs a picture that is mesmerising, if impenetrable. From the opening image of churning seawater accompanied by Jonny Greenwood’s elegiac score, to his understated direction in letting powerhouse
actors Hoffman and Phoenix square off in many charged encounters, The Master keeps you alert but off balance. Amy Adams shows up to score the easiest Oscar nomination of her career playing against type as Dodd’s protective, delusional wife.

The Master is not the feel-good movie of the year, but see it for something slightly alarming, a bit uncomfortable, but ultimately very memorable.

The Master opens today