Plenty of pre-release buzz has surrounded “The Master” due to its subject matter and the similarities to Scientology. Lancaster Dodd, one of the film’s protagonists, does exhibit many of the characteristics and philosophies of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. But more than anything else, this film is a meticulously executed character study that highlights strange characters and an even stranger relationship.
The central figure in “The Master” is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled Navy veteran who has difficulty adjusting to life in the years following World War II. In the opening moments the audience is shown a man who playfully pretends to chop off his arm, performs lewd acts with a female sand sculpture and drinks pretty much anything with alcohol in it.
Obviously Freddie is in need of help, and when he drunkenly stumbles onto a ship he finds that help in the form of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is perfectly blunt in the pair’s first meeting, describing Freddie as a violent miscreant. But he allows Freddie to stay on the ship, and soon Dodd introduces the mysterious drifter to “The Cause.”
As Freddie starts to buy into Dodd’s obscure religious teachings that talk about past lives and encourage seemingly pointless exercises, the relationship between the two blossoms. It is this dynamic that represents the core of “The Master,” and the viewer is left to decipher who has the greater influence on whom and whether Freddie can truly be helped.
The reason why the aforementioned relationship is worth caring about is because the characters are so unusually interesting. Freddie can be charismatic at times and he’s not one to shy away from juvenile humor, but he’s also a ticking time bomb. Often in the film he has violent outbursts, leading others in Dodd’s movement to question whether Freddie is wholly committed to The Cause.
Dodd, on the other hand, is a charming man who has a hypnotic way of talking to people. He describes himself as a philosopher, writer and nuclear physicist among other things, and The Cause is what matters most to him. But he’s not immune to his own outbursts, especially when his credibility is questioned. But the way Dodd bends over backwards to “cure” Freddie begs the question: Does Freddie need Dodd or is it the other way around?
Also worth mentioning is Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). She’s often in the background, but when she does show up in scenes it seems as though she’s the one pulling the strings. It’s almost as if she has a calm and assured way of controlling people, and it makes one wonder whether she’s the true mastermind behind The Cause.
The outstanding cast helps flesh out these characters, including three Oscar-worthy performances. The last time we saw Joaquin Phoenix he was pursuing a fake hip-hop career in the confusing mockumentary “I’m Still Here,” but he absolutely crackles with passion in “The Master.” The way he creepily smiles at jokes and flies off the handle at a moment’s notice is unsettling, and Phoenix also goes through a physical transformation in the film with his sickly-looking demeanor and slouched posture.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adam’s performances aren’t quite as flashy, but the way they display their powerful presence with a lack of overly emotional moments is impressive. Hoffman in particular is excellent as Lancaster Dodd, using speech and rhetoric that could influence a wary moviegoer into believing The Cause despite its unusual philosophies.
If there’s one major flaw in “The Master” it’s a lack of narrative momentum. Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s last film, “There Will Be Blood,” also focused heavily on characters, but the events surrounding those characters were also interesting. The same can’t be said about the slow-burning plot of “The Master,” which may leave some viewers restless.
“The Master” is certainly not a film for everyone, but movie aficionados who are interested in fascinating characters and top-notch acting owe it to themselves to go see this film.
ANTHONY LABELLA can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.