In whom are we to put our faith in this post-modern, 21st century world? To what code or creed should we attach ourselves in order to make sense of our lives and evaluate our behavior? The gifted writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) addresses these threshold questions in this emotionally wrenching tale of a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in the mold of L. Ron Hubbard and his decades-long involvement with a disillusioned naval veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) in the years after WW II. Though Anderson has denied any connection with his film and the growth of Scientology, his screenplay’s timeframe is positioned squarely in the mid-20th century, when that secretive group first developed.
Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a rootless, (and possibly psychotic) vet who wanders onto a yacht carrying Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) to the New York home of a wealthy convert to Dodd’s fledgling movement. As outlined in Dodd’s writings and mesmerizing speeches, he offers his followers the kind of clarity envisioned in Scientology’s self-definition: “...a precise path leading to a complete and certain understanding of one’s true spiritual nature and relationship to self, family & Mankind.” Dodd offers Freddie certitude and asks only submission in return. Over the ensuing decades of his life, Freddy caroms in and out of Dodd’s traveling retinue of true believers, subjecting himself to Dodd’s invasive interrogation techniques supposedly designed to plumb the depths of Freddy’s tangled soul. Dodd’s as effusive, self-confident and egotistic as Freddie is withdrawn, guilt-ridden & permeated by self-doubt. Dodd manipulates; Freddie disintegrates, alternatively seeking Dodd’s approval and some resolution to the self-imposed demons Dodd dredges up in an unending series of mind games he unspools with the gusto of a carnival barker.
The Master’s cat & mouse game is played before an evolving audience led by Dodd’s devoted but hard-edged wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and various members of his extended family who serve as acolytes in the service of a belief system constantly being expanded (and muddled) by its bombastic creator. Dodd’s family fears Freddie’s intensity & skepticism and repeatedly try to drive him away - -but Dodd needs Freddy’s adoration as much as Freddy lusts for the clarity his mentor promises; they parry and thrust like mongoose and python, using the lines in Anderson’s astounding screenplay to confound and lacerate one another. (Oscar nominations for both are already being widely discussed.)
Despite the brilliance of Anderson’s script and his lyrical imagery, The Master is difficult to watch; as he’s demonstrated in some of his earlier work (Punch Drunk Love & Magnolia) Anderson has a nearly perverse appetite for opacity of purpose in his storylines. How viewers respond to this shockingly raw examination of manipulation and dependency will depend on the presuppositions they bring to the theater. It’s hard not to be enthralled and simultaneously repulsed by these two characters; does the director’s genius lie in his ability to turn this shrewdly drawn critique of Scientology into a Rorschach test for those who see it?
The Verdict? Dazzling, frustrating & deeply troubling all at once. Not for the cinematic faint of heart.
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