After “Battlefield Earth” who would’ve thought that scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard would ever be portrayed seriously in film again? “The Master,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film since 2007’s “There Will Be Blood”, does just that. It neither condemns nor justifies the religion, but centers on the fascinating struggle of two men.
Joaquin Phoenix’s faux mental breakdown is over, thankfully, and he has returned to acting in this film portraying Freddie Quell, a Navy man coming out of World War 2 with PTSD. His life is prone to odd, hostile, and drunken behavior before he climbs aboard the sea vessel of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a writer who has a small family of followers and a lot of great ideas about controlling emotions, like encouraging converts to travel back through their past lives or submit to intense interrogation techniques called processing. These are criticized and called cultish but Freddie seems to respond to them.
So much of this film hinges on the chemistry between Phoenix and Hoffman and even in its unnecessarily-long length, the movie still catches fire whenever they’re together. Hoffman makes Dodd a man of conviction, charisma, and caring but also a volcano of fury when any one of his ideas is put under scrutiny. And Phoenix seems to make every part of this character an unstable mess, from his hunched-over appearance to lack of eye contact, to his wild-animal way of lashing out and inappropriate sexual behavior. This is a man whose very soul has been torn to shreds and Phoenix’s approach is on the money.
Both Freddie and Dodd may be completely insane but it’s Dodd’s continued belief in his own methods and Freddie’s search for his own humanity that ring true. Even if what they’re practicing is bullshit, it’s still one man trying to help another man and the bond that forms from that.
Haven’t seen “The Master” yet? There’s still time!
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