Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams
When word spread back in 2011 of a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie that alluded to Scientology leader L. Ron Hubbard, there came the expected controversy, hype and anticipation. Anderson, who’d previously worked with famous Scientologist (and good friend) Tom Cruise in Magnolia, seemed like he was on his way to burning some bridges.
This long awaited film, The Master, could’ve been an insulting and crude lambasting of modern religions and cults like Scientology. Instead, it explores unconventional, and in turn, more interesting territory by focusing on the complicated relationship between cult follower and cult founder.
The film follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a disturbed WWII Navy vet. He’s a violent and savage drunk rejected by everybody he meets— that is, until he encounters Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a “writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher” and spiritual leader of The Cause. What results is a visually striking, yet flawed, portrait of desperation, surrender and power.
With distorted posture, slurred speech and a painful glare in his eyes that exposes fear, trauma and sadness, Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely hypnotizing as Freddie. There’s no doubt that this role will bring the actor an eventful and triumphant award season this winter.
As masterfully executed as his performance is, the movie itself feels incomplete. It’s an interesting character study that lacks an arc, packed full of statements missing a point. Story lines are introduced and then dropped. And at 137 minutes, watching the film is a serious commitment.
Regardless, The Master is worth the time. Is it PTA’s next There Will Be Blood or Boogie Nights? No, but it is an ambitious attempt to understand two broken men— one revered and one rejected, one with the power to control those around him and one without the power to control even himself.