On the surface, “The Master” is a film about a man joining a cult and the life changing events he experiences there. But at its core, “The Master” is a film about humanity, belief, hope and despair, all wrapped in a beautiful package of masterfully-crafted sights, sounds and story, brought to us by director Paul Thomas Anderson.
Joaquin Phoenix returns to the screen for the first time since “I’m Still Here” and reminds us that he truly is still here. Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a World War II veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who returns to a post-war America. He loses two jobs due to his drinking and violent tendencies and, in a drunken haze, literally stumbles onto the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a self-proclaimed writer, doctor, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher.
Dodd is also the founder of the Cause, a cult-like movement where converts are intensely interrogated about their past in order to relive traumatic events and, in the process of reliving these dark memories, cleanse their souls of toxicity.
Anderson, the architect behind “There Will Be Blood,” turns an unblinking eye on religion and cults. In particular, the parallels between L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology and the fictional Dodd’s Cause are unmistakable. Anderson has also admitted in interviews to using the genesis of Scientology as a sort of “backdrop” to his film. However, rather than becoming a cautionary tale about such movements, “The Master” uses this rich real world source material to bring its message home.
But it’s hard to imagine this film working at all without the brilliant acting of Hoffman. He truly brings the character to life as a charismatic, yet ultimately hollow worded cult leader. From booming messages to his followers to low hypnotic phrases, Hoffman ensnares the audience with his voice almost as well as Dodd ensnares Quell. We can feel his despair as he tries to bring Quell into the fold because, even in world built on his lies, Dodd truly cares for him.
Phoenix is equally enthralling, but in a much different way. Quell is a landmine just waiting to go off should anyone try to question Dodd. However, he shifts from fanatical devotion to extreme doubt and begins to question Dodd himself. While imprisoned following a confrontation with police officers, Quell destroys part of a jail cell and slams his head against the top bunk multiple times. When Dodd tries to calm him, Quell turns his rage on him, questioning everything that Dodd has taught him and demanding that Dodd “tell him something that’s true.” Phoenix brilliantly broadcasts Quell’s pain, his sorrow, his hopes and his failures so that we feel for him from the first frame until the very last.
It’s hard to truly describe what makes “The Master” a great film. Jerry Greenwood has crafted a beautiful score for the film that never disappoints, and it pairs perfectly with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s breathtaking imagery.
But the true strength of “The Master” lies in its message. Anderson has brought us a work of art that speaks to the nearly universal human desire to belong and the sacrifices that we make in order to do so.
5 out of 5 reels