Film Review: Powerful acting, 'Master'-ful moviemaking

A self-help author and cult leader seemingly based on L. Ron Hubbard, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, right) recruits damaged veteran Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix, left) into his fold in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master."
The Weinstein Company

A self-help author and cult leader seemingly based on L. Ron Hubbard, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, right) recruits damaged veteran Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix, left) into his fold in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master." The Weinstein Company

The title of "The Master" would seem to refer to the magisterial, sometimes mercurial Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who, with a mixture of braggadocio and false modesty, describes himself to a new follower as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher" and — "above all" — merely "a highly inquisitive man."

Or does confident writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson intend the title of his new movie as a tribute to himself? "The Master" is Anderson's first film since the similarly methodical, mysterious and haunted "There Will Be Blood," a 2007 movie that generally is regarded as a modern masterpiece. What else would a master create?

After returning from the Second World War, a psychologically troubled drifter returns from the war and meets the charismatic leader of a new religion. The ...

Rating: R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language

Length: 150 minutes

Released: September 14, 2012 Limited

Cast: Amy Adams, Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rami Malek, Laura Dern

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson

More info and showtimes »

"The Master" more or less divides the earlier film's increasingly wealthy, deranged and alcoholic Daniel Day-Lewis character into two entities: the charismatic, intellectual Dodd and the primitive, emotional Freddie Quell, played by an almost emaciated Joaquin Phoenix.

To become the atavistic Freddie, the true protagonist of the story, Phoenix hunches his shoulders as if suffering from curvature of the spine. He appears uncomfortable in his own skin — an idea that affirms Dodd's claim that human beings are vessels for spirits that have been traveling from body to body for "trillions" of years.

Freddie is an ex-Navy sailor with an obsession with sex and a talent for mixology, concocting dangerous and highly intoxicating brews out of torpedo fuel, photographic fixer and paint thinner. This poisonous alchemy may explain his somewhat brain-damaged manner and oddly malformed presence; his postwar "nervous condition" may be physical as well as emotional.

The first two-thirds or more of "The Master" fulfill the Anderson fan's expectations and the movie's recent festival acclaim, as Freddie is introduced on a beach with his bored fellow sailors, performing obscene pantomimes with a nude woman sculpted out of sand and, later, back in the U.S., losing his cool while working as a portrait photographer in a temple dedicated to postwar American affluence, a department store.

When a military psychologist asks about "a crying episode," Freddie attributes his emotional loss of control to "nostalgia." Most of the movie takes place in 1950, and the allure of the past explains some of the appeal of the film, with its convincing production design (by David Crank and Jack Fisk) and stunning 65-mm cinematography (by Mihai Malaimare Jr., known for the recent Coppola films "Youth Without Youth" and "Tetro"). When the psychologist gives Freddie a Rorschach test, the sailor sees male or female genitalia in every inkblot. The scene seems to be a reference to Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange," another movie about a young "scoundrel" who must decide whether to indulge his natural instinct for unfettered, violent freedom or submit to an authoritarian remedy for security, self-control and "betterment."

After Freddie wanders onto what appears to be a party cruise boat, he finds himself recruited into the extended family of Lancaster Dodd, author of a self-help book, "The Cause." Dodd has developed a well-heeled nationwide fan base as well as an interview technique known as "Processing" that is supposed to return participants to a state of "pre-birth" so they can cleanse themselves of the injuries of their past lives. "You're aberrated," Dodd tells Freddie. "You've wandered from the proper path."

Philip Seymour Hoffman apparently watched a lot of Orson Welles in preparation for his performance, but Dodd and his "Cause" — despite Anderson's protests to the contrary — clearly were inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. The movie, however, is not an exposé of Hubbard's cult, even if one insider acknowledges that Dodd is "making it up as he goes along"; Freddie, in fact, seems to benefit, at least somewhat, from Dodd's attention.

Dodd calls Freddie a "naughty boy" and "dirty animal," and Freddie proves as loyal as any dog — an attack dog, who springs on those who threaten his master. But the words carry an erotic tension, and the relationship between the men might be described as a twisted courtship, recognized perhaps only by Dodd's pregnant wife (Amy Adams), whose maternal appearance belies her cunning nature.

At a certain point, sad to say, "The Master" hits a wall. The film becomes repetitive and unsurprising, except in its lack of momentum. Unlike "There Will Be Blood" or "Punch-Drunk Love" (which cast Adam Sandler as a sort of innocent Freddie Quell prototype), it loses its grip on the moviegoer as it goes along, at least during a first viewing. Even so, it's hard to shake, and its repeated image of water churning in the wake of a vessel at sea suggests that Dodd's philosophy and Freddie's frustration might be better summed up in a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

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