Movie Review: The Master
Published: Monday, October 1, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 1, 2012 22:10
Fall 2012 has opened with yet another masterpiece from the dynamic, fearless and frequently inscrutable Paul Thomas Anderson. Whereas Anderson’s previous Oscar-nominated epics were keen to mine the edges of the 20th century (“There Will Be Blood” chronicled its blood-stained beginnings while “Magnolia” shepherded in a gentle but defiant denouement) “The Master” dives right into its middle. In the process he unearths fundamental questions—and not necessarily corresponding answers—about the id that resides deep within our collective, national postwar consciousness. Religion, addiction, dysfunctional families, sexual desire and the cult of celebrity are just a handful of the colors strung together on “The Master’s” near-limitless palette.
Don’t be distracted by the heavy marketing and claims by outside sources that this is primarily a roman à clef concerning the rise of L. Ron Hubbard and the founding of Scientology; this is no biopic, it is not an exposé and the film needs none of this controversy to retain its excellence. If anything, it’s clearly similar to Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” which was simultaneously inspired by an Upton Sinclair novel, “Oil!,” while also sharing next-to-nothing with the book thematically.
“The Master’s” heart resides less in the connections to the controversial cult movement than in Anderson’s curiosity about the deeper recesses that lurk inside the caverns of American masculinity itself. It’s through this investigation that that we first meet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). In addition to being a victim of incest and an addict of a potentially lethal homemade moonshine (he laces it with paint thinner and other chemicals), Quell also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from service in the Pacific during World War II. Returning home from combat, he struggles to suppress his baser natures when re-immersed within a polite, sleek, consumerist society that no longer particularly needs or wants him.
After months of drifting amongst odd jobs and menial labors, Quell falls under the spell of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who describes himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher but above all a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.” Dodd is the founder of The Cause, the Scientology-like cult movement that espouses knowledge about past lives and alternative medicinal treatments.
Dodd takes a fascination to Quell—he loves the man’s alcohol recipe and, more importantly, he comes to see him as a surrogate son, a new apostle for The Cause. “Leave your worries for awhile, they’ll be there when you get back,” Dodd tells him when they first meet. “And your memories aren’t invited.” However, after spending time with his new master, Quell grows disenchanted with aspects of the movement, like the Cause’s regimented exercises, known as “processings,” which border on exploitative, if not sadistic.
Framed in 65mm and presented via a tightly-scripted, virtuously-formalist aesthetic, Anderson’s “The Master” is a spirited, contentious, deliberately ambiguous film, intended to thwart and ignite audiences’ aggravation as much as to meet their expectations. It is a messy, challenging and deeply moving experiment. It features some of the finest acting of the new century, both from the co-leads (prediction: Phoenix wins Best Actor in a runaway) and from Amy Adams as Dodd’s young wife. Her doting, kindly belief in her husband’s mumbo jumbo is in fact a mask for a calculated ambition that would make Regan or Goneril shudder. Like the final, indelible closing moments of Anderson’s previous masterworks, “The Master” similarly buries itself deep within your consciousness long after you’ve seen it. Like all great art, just because something’s finished doesn’t mean it’s over.