Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. 14A. 137 min. Opens Sept. 21.
Of the many elements that make The Master the year’s meatiest and most mesmerizing American movie, the most astonishing is the performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell. A mentally troubled vet struggling to find some kind of stable footing in the booming society of postwar California, Phoenix’s character is a figure of such feral intensity that he’s more animal than man.
Pretty much continually cranked on homemade hooch, Quell would seem to be of limited use to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic author and speaker who crisscrosses America promoting a psychological cure-all he calls “The Cause.” Yet the magnanimous and mercurial Dodd—who bears some resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard even if The Master is so much more than a veiled history of Scientology’s early years—still sees Quell as a kindred spirit. Dodd adopts him as a pet, as well as an attack dog that he
can set upon his critics.
It’s through the duo’s dynamic that Paul Thomas Anderson’s film demonstrates a diverse array of ideas about power, control, manhood, and identity. Indeed, much of The Master’s genius lies in its ability to root America’s perennial love affair with upstart faiths and self-actualization schemes (represented here by Dodd’s mystical prattle about time-travelling souls) in the private battles of people who feel forever torn between their loftiest aspirations and basest lusts. Given the wars going on within both Dodd and Quell, the forces of rationality hardly stand a chance.
Even greater in its ambitions than Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s sixth feature has a scope and a strangeness that his past efforts achieved only intermittently. With its consistently startling visual compositions (presented in gloriously old-school 70mm), eerie score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, and powerhouse performances across the board, The Master is fully actualized in a way that its characters can only yearn to be.—