Much like the belief system in the film (which may or may not have been loosely based on Scientology), The Master is not for everyone. Actually, it’s not for a general audience, but then again, which Paul Thomas Anderson movie is? The talented writer/director’s latest effort may not be as refined but just as effective with powerful performances by its leads and characters that will stay with you forever.
The alleged inspiration of the film will draw religion-curious minds, but those looking for a Scientology history lesson will leave disappointed and perplexed. The Master is a messy character study about two lost souls in the 1950s who find each other during a turbulent period in their lives, but it’s a beautiful mess thanks to Anderson’s vision and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s artistic eye.
Joaquin Phoenix delivers a ferocious, award-worthy performance as Freddie Quell, an alcoholic drifter who struggles to find his place in society after serving in World War II. During one of his drunken escapades, Freddie wakes up on a yacht and meets by the charismatic intellectual captain Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), referred as “the master” by others on the boat. Dodd, founder of a movement known as the Cause, allows the veteran to stay on board so long he performs his duties and allows the master to “process” Freddie, a “liberation” session in which the master asks him a series of questions to confront his past and break down any barriers that block his ability to live freely. Freddie’s demons and addictions become Dodd’s obsessions, and he makes it a priority to fix his alcoholism. Though the drifter agrees to be processed, he begins to question it, as well as the master, setting up a dramatic, unsettling final act in the film that may just have moviegoers wondering what the hell they just watch.
Hoffman adds another remarkable performance to an already stellar career. Whether it be yelling at a skeptic, or a simple whisper to Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams), the actor demands attention with a thought-provoking, yet disturbing character. Pressured by his followers, ego and intellect, the master struggles to find clarity and believe in his own work. He sets his sights on a restless drunk drifter, but it soon becomes an obsession that is borderline creepy (the soft serenade scene is genius and unnerving). The complex relationship between Freddie and Dodd is as confusing as the film, which may require a second viewing of the gorgeous hodgepodge. Anderson’s astounding thoughts and demoralizing characters will daze audiences as well as stimulate the mind. While it may seem the director was confounded with the structure, Freddie and Dodd are just as lost as Anderson, making his work somewhat genius. The film is just splattered paint on a canvas, but if you look long enough, you will see an indescribable vision that emanates hope in a chaotic work of art. The Master has plenty of bumps and curves on the road, but it is one well worth traveling.