Mesmerizing is the Word for The Master
THE MASTER (IN THEATERS/2012) Set in the post-war 1950s, this masterful work, which has already won major prizes at the Venice Film Festival, is Paul Thomas Anderson’s 6th film and his first since 2007’s “There Will Be Blood.” They say you should really see this movie twice before reaching any conclusions about it, but I’m ready to tell you that it’s absolutely spellbinding. To begin, the images you look at on screen are startlingly clear and perfect. Credit to the cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. who composed gorgeous shots and to Anderson as well, who decided to shoot the movie on 65mm stock, a format not used for several decades. Credit also goes to production designers Jack Fish and David Crank, and to costumer designer Mark Bridges, who recreate the 1950s for us down to every detail and show us an amazing array of ties, shoes, hats, dresses, you name it—all making the film visually stunning. And then there’s the acting. It’s almost impossible to describe the brilliance and range of Philip Seymour Hoffman as cult leader Lancaster Dodd and the scary intensity of Joaquin Phoenix as Dodd’s protégé and guinea pig Freddie Quell. The story, written by Anderson, takes its inspiration from L. Ron Hubbardand his creation of Scientology during roughly the same time period. Dodd is the head and creator of a movement called “The Cause.” He presents himself as a brilliant man, or a shaman, or both. It doesn’t matter—his followers hang on his every word. Freddie, coming out of WWII where he was an “able bodied seaman,” is clearly damaged and due to his restless and violent nature, is unable to hold down any job. He is also a raging alcoholic and the most creative moonshine maker you’ve ever seen—using ingredients that will make you groan. Ultimately, he lands on a boat where Dodd’s daughter is about to get married. Dodd takes him in and welcomes him to The Cause (and also welcomes Freddie to make him some excellent hooch).
The two go round and round for the rest of the movie, almost like dancers on a stage. Amy Adams appears as Dodd’s wife Peggy, perpetually pregnant but a real force behind the Master. She disapproves of her husband’s attachment to Freddie and often the camera catches her critical eye as she sits in silence. Other actors in supporting roles are solid as well, including Ambyr Childers as Dodd’s daughter Elizabeth, Jesse Piemons as his son Val, and Laura Dern as one of Dodd’s devoted (and wealthy) supporters. As any number of others have noted, don’t go to this movie expecting to find the answer to Scientology or how it works. The movie is really a combination of character study and examination of large issues–man’s very nature, for example, and his need to believe in and belong to something, the search for meaning, and ultimately, for Freddie, the inability to exert control over base needs. An exceptional film, in every respect and well worth one or many viewings.