Quality: ★★★ (out of four)
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Rating: R for sexual content, nudity, profanity
Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Theater: Westroads, Oak View, Film Streams
It may be telling that the first thing you need to know about “The Master” is what it is not.
Ballyhooed as a movie obliquely about L. Ron Hubbard and the founding of Scientology, director-screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson's first feature since “There Will Be Blood” only tangentially references this controversial religion and elements of cult status often attached to it.
Yes, Philip Seymour Hoffman's character, Lancaster Dodd, bears certain parallels to Hubbard, and elements of his religion referred to as The Cause sound familiar: origins in the late 1940s, belief in time travel, processing of new members, claims of medical healing, a book release.
But this is no exposé. The Cause is just a backdrop.
Rather, “The Master” is a character study of the relationship between Dodd, a charismatic, needy, intellectual charlatan, and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic drifter left shell-shocked by World War II who stumbles across his path, barely functional.
Hoffman and Phoenix are mesmerizing, instant contenders for Oscar nominations. The movie, a visual feast expertly crafted, is nonetheless less compelling than the sum of its parts.
Early scenes trace Freddie's exit from the Navy, defining him as a mentally unstable man who is prone to violence, dubious drink-mixing and a preoccupation with sex.
A failure as a department-store photographer and a farm worker, he stumbles onto Dodd's borrowed yacht just as it sets out from San Francisco for New York. Dodd likes Freddie's potent cocktails (secret ingredients: Lysol, paint thinner) but immediately sees him for what he is: a self-destructive mess.
“You've wandered from the proper path, haven't you?” he asks, shortly before declaring Freddie will be “my guinea pig and protegé.”
But Dodd's sharp-eyed wife sees Freddie for what he is: a danger to The Cause who must be tightly contained if not excised. Amy Adams, playing the opposite of the perky characters she's most known for, brilliantly underplays Peggy as a woman capable of strong influence on her enigmatic, egocentric husband. She's the one person he can't seem to effectively bully when challenged.
The trouble with “The Master” is that the relationship at the heart of the movie drifts and repeats, with bursts of riveting anecdote. Neither man seems much changed by the other. Freddie likes being Dodd's junkyard dog but doesn't ever seem to fully buy into The Cause. Dodd likes the idea of being Freddie's savior, but even he can't control this loose cannon.
The question we're left asking is which man needs the other more, which seems a thin reason to make a movie. You might wonder if a little more digging at the nature of cult religion would have given this more substance.
And, typical of Anderson, there's lots of unexplained weirdness. Witness a surreal scene in a private home in which all the women suddenly appear naked. Or another in which Dodd, then Freddie race a motorcycle across a salt flat. Feels pointless.
But the acting isn't the only thing sublime about “The Master.” Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. shoots in the 70mm hyperfocus format that dazzled us on movies like “Lawrence of Arabia.” The wake of a boat, skin tones, period costumes, exquisite lighting and editing — it's all high art here. Jonny Greenwood's score, a mix of period tunes and moody underscoring, is also standout work.
“The Master” is an extended mind game, an elliptical exercise that will have limited commercial appeal. While the craft of filmmaking here is extraordinary, and the central characters are riveting, the open-ended story will leave many unsatisfied.
But the imagery, and that twisted relationship, prove haunting.
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