Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern
Release date: September 14th, 2012
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Running time: 138 minutes
Best part: Dynamic performances from Phoenix and Hoffman.
Worst part: Amy Adams’ underused role.
With religion a major part of our current social status, the debate of fact versus belief is regularly explored and discussed. Religion has been one of the past decade’s biggest talking points. Whether it is the positive words of a controversial celebrity follower or the criticisms of a sceptic, modern organised religion will always fight an uphill battle against the media. Influential director Paul Thomas Anderson(Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love, Magnolia)’s film The Master explores the creation of one of the world’s most controversial institutions. He has created a touching, opaque, delicate yet explicit character study from the outsider’s perspective.
The story follows embittered WWII veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an inappropriate, angry and immoral man suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He seeks to expel his demons through alcohol, violence and sexual encounters. His ongoing troubles inadvertently lead him to nuclear physicist, spiritual leader and family man Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Leading a tour across America, Dodd brings the fractured Quell into his home, hoping to change him for the better. Joining his controversial cause, Quell’s detailed initiation process will either make or break him for good. Encountering Dodd’s unimpressed wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and sceptical son Val (Jesse Plemons), his dreams of a life away from war and sickness will hopefully cure his violent quarrels.
The Master is a subtle and meditative look at the birth of religion and the tenuous process of induction. The story is supposedly based on the exploits of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Anderson has found a way of objectively discussing the differences between religion, cult and freedoms associated with democracy. Quell is a symbol of a United States that has left its veterans behind. Drinking concoctions made up of film chemicals, medicine and missile fuel, Quell is a seemingly immortal man lost to the temptations of power, hormones and alcoholism. His initial downfall effectively illustrates the harsh problems associated with both the military and organised religions. Finding a temporary yet uncomfortable solace through violence and day labour, Quell is a lost soul eager to change for the better. He is a disgraceful yet colourful character, journeying toward breaking the bonds of a bleak establishment. His character however never truly believes in the science-based practices of Dodd. He never seems to change throughout the course of significant events, despite his desire to settle back into Middle America. The Master sadly fails to create a satisfying character arc for this lost soul and twisted individual. Phoenix however delivers an Oscar-calibre portrayal of a common man poisoned in more ways than one. Providing a return to form after his controversial run of incidences, Phoenix places his body on line with every word straining to escape his crinkled facial features and gangly figure.
Phoenix also provides a mix of sensitivity and intensity in many scenes, providing the same alluring presence as he did with his portrayal of Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Anderson creates a strong and almost homoerotic friendship between Quell and Dodd, a theme prevalent in the majority of his films. Similar to Daniel Day Lewis and Paul Dano’s relationship in Anderson’s previous film There Will Be Blood, Quell and Dodd represent the positives and negatives of control, capitalism, and self-assured freedom. Both characters reign over others, but to differing degrees of effectiveness. Whereas Quell lashes out at people attacking Dodd’s word, Dodd is a deranged character determined to keep his unstable side locked up. Hoffman’s turn as the Untrustworthy yet charming leader proves why he is currently one of Hollywood’s best actors. He is enrapturing and unnerving as the enjoyably boisterous patriarch of his own special family known as ‘The Cause’, while suitably intense in many of his interrogation scenes with Quell. Quell, obsessed with picturing naked women in certain situations, is a character in desperate need of a stern father figure. His relationship with Dodd may become is saving grace, trusting a man all too eagerly convincing the world of his own strange practices.
“If you leave me now, in the next life you will be my sworn enemy. And I will show you no mercy.” (Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), The Master).
The supporting cast however is underused in pivotal roles. Adams is effective as both the icy queen of Dodd’s feuding household and cautious follower of his work. Plemons is charismatic in his few scenes, providing a thought provoking stand against a man who considers himself a god. While Laura Dern is a suitable presence as one of Dodd’s most important followers, believing every word of Dodd’s theories regarding past lives and time travel. Anderson has continually proven how to depict a cynical yet detailed look at Middle America at its most vulnerable. Effectively capturing the steamiest part of America’s sex life in Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood‘s oil tycoon blinded by arrogance and a lack of self-control, Anderson here develops every possible opinion in a 1940s America beginning to evolve past WWII. Anderson’s unflattering look at humanity, captured through multiple shots of average faces, illustrates an aura of disgust with certain individuals looking down upon the mentally unstable or anarchic. Illustrating the subtle yet noticeable differences between religion and cult, Anderson’s detailed discussion of unusual practices and preachings is a profound insight into the vast differences between truth and personal belief. One blackly comedic scene reveals Dodd’s disgust with anyone openly disagreeing with his peculiar religious statements.