Review by Pete Mason
Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” recently premiered to rave reviews from audiences and critics alike, so seeing it the first chance I could (at Spectrum 8) was a natural. I loved Anderson after multiple viewings of “Boogie Nights” and found the acting phenomenal and the camera moving fluidly in each scene as a hallmark of superb directing. Later films “Magnolia” and “There Will Be Blood” would lead to Oscar-nominated and winning performances for his cast members, but his directing, nominated twice now, has hit the mark in “The Master,” offering command performances both behind and in front of the camera.
The film centers around two characters, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who are like the two hemispheres of the brain – Dodd the left, analytical and thinking portion while Quell is the right, full of impulse, anger and emotion. Quell has been adrift since his stint in the Navy at the end of World War Two, drinking and having an unhealthy sexual appetite that is unsatiated through gigs as a fieldworker and department store photographer. He meets Dodd by pure happenstance, stowing away on his boat as it sets sail from San Francisco to New York City. The relationship between the two starts slowly and develop, as Quell becomes Dodd’s protégé, amid a cult-like atmosphere.
“The Master” is not a film about Scientology, except it is, with hints of L. Ron Hubbard’s life following World War Two written into the story, the lost sailor in Quell and the father-figure and cult leader in Dodd, who is shining the light through ‘The Cause’ – finding evidence of past lives and deep-seated emotions through processing, much like the Scientology practice of auditing. Hoffman takes the center in nearly every scene, for he is the focus of this cult, while Phoenix’s Quell is trying to find his place amid the group and understand what they are trying to sell him on, for whatever it truly is, he is trying to buy it; whether he eventually does is up to the viewer.
Three key scenes in the film are some of the most tense and magnificent acting, between Phoenix and Hoffman, face to face in each. The first time at sea, staring at each other while questions of past and present are asked of Phoenix; later in adjoining jail cells where Phoenix lets his emotions win out and destroys his enclosure while Hoffman witnesses him in a more collected manner; and again towards then the end of the film when the pair have their final meeting, palpable emotions pouring out from the pained expression in the face of Quell while listening to his friend, his equal, Dodd (rhymes with God), give him a secret to their shared past. The build-up throughout the film brings two men that are initially diametrically opposite each other and makes Freddie Quell become Dodd’s Freed Equal. The entire movie is enthralling and tough to shake, but these three scenes are beyond powerful.
Amy Adams plays Dodd’s wife Peggy in a quietly supporting yet deeply disturbing role, while Rami Malek who is married to Dodd’s daughter early in the film and is mesmerizing in his few scenes, coldly follows Dodd’s every word and calls him dad, but not out of matrimonial respect. Both Hoffman and Phoenix will surely be nominated for Best Actor, but if one is to win, my heart goes for Hoffman, who gets as deep into character as Daniel Day Lewis does in Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” But it is likely Phoenix takes home the prize for the intense emotion displayed, a full swing away from his last Oscar-nominated role as Johnny Cash. The whole film will keep you captivated for the full 2:17, as the film descends deeper into the mind of Dodd and his relationship with Quell.