Hoffman, Phoenix shine as cult leader, acolyte
In his first film since There
Will Be Blood, director Paul Thomas Anderson explores a challenging subject
in the birth of a religion that has exerted influence on American life,
especially in the entertainment industry. Inspired by L. Ron Hubbard’s
Scientology, The Master follows the
relationship between a cult leader and his troubled acolyte. Few conclusions
can be drawn in the end, but the journey provides a platform for superb acting
by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the leader and Joaquin Phoenix as the follower.
Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, who leaves the U.S. Navy at the close of World War II diagnosed with combat fatigue. The Master reveals little in the elliptical snippets of his service except his penchant for distilling and drinking hooch from industrial alcohol. As bits of his back story surface, it’s clear that this handsome man with the strangled body language—his tight face compresses around tighter lips—was unstable before he enlisted. Meanwhile, Quell stumbles, literally, into the company of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a self-described “writer, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher” aboard a yacht on loan from one of his wealthy admirers. Dodd is charming but thin-skinned, a well-spoken Ivy Leaguer with an aura of mystery surrounding his easy gravitas. Quell isn’t the brightest guy, but he reluctantly recognizes his need for help. Perhaps Dodd’s “Process,” with its relentless repetition of uncomfortable questions and search for repressed memories, could penetrate the darkness of his consciousness and clear him of dangerous impulses?
Quell is characterized as a wounded animal in Phoenix’s classic, Montgomery Clift Method performance. Dodd’s almost avuncular interest is puzzling, though he eventually uses Quell as a test case for his theories, which roam well beyond psychotherapy and self-help into realms of science fiction. Dodd’s weird cosmology encompasses trillions of years, past lives and alien invaders whose “implants” determine human behavior—unless awakened from the sleep of false consciousness by the Process. Gathering his followers into a group called the Cause, he is lavished with fidelity and attention and has grown paranoid over outsiders bent on thwarting his program. Whether or not he made it all up, he appears to have become the first among his believers.
The Master is richly drawn in its small details on post-World War II America, yet the story lacks any context for the emergence of Dodd and the Cause. The screenplay is weakest in showing the motivation behind Dodd and his followers, who just seem to be there because they have nothing else to do. Although The Master is not a masterpiece of cinematography and allusive storytelling to rival There Must Be Blood, it gives rise to a pair of memorable performances by Phoenix as a man whose behavior has no breaks and Hoffman as a man whose ego knows no bounds