By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — With two scintillating performances as its chief pleasure, why isn’t The Master more masterful?
Perhaps because always-interesting director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love) shows so much less interest in our interest than in his own.
During production, it was assumed that the project was to be an exposé of sorts. But it turns out that it’s not the story of L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology. And yet, try not thinking about them during The Master.
The premise: the Second World War has ended, but it seems as if ex-sailor Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, working as a department store photographer in the 1950s, is still in the Navy, fighting a neverending battle against his animalistic self, if nobody else, as he tries to quell his seemingly ever-present anger.
Seeming shell-shocked and drinking far too much, Freddie drifts from place to place, job to job, until he meets Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (in his fifth collaboration with Anderson), the charismatic founder and launcher and leader of The Cause, a group of religious believers who follow a personal-improvement belief system articulated by Dodd.
Larger than life, acknowledged as a genius, and accompanied and assisted by wife Amy Adams and son Jesse Plemons, Dodd preaches a philosophy that actually has a time-travel component.
When they meet –- a result of Freddie stowing away on Dodd’s yacht –- Dodd takes to Freddie and takes him under his wing, putting him through their ritualistic “processing,” whereby recruits are apprised and then cleansed of faults, habits, inadequacies, and failures that have continued to plague them and hold them back from actualizing.
Freddie becomes Dodd’s righthand man, but eventually comes to question many of his mentor’s central precepts.
Anderson may not be offering a labeled expose of Hubbard or Scientology, but his script was clearly at least inspired by Hubbard’s life and the Church of Scientology. Making Freddie the protagonist doesn’t change that: there are just too many direct parallels to ignore.
(It seems of interest to mention at this point that Anderson directed famed Scientologist Tom Cruise to a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his performance as a cult leader in his Magnolia. Just sayin’…)
It turns out that Anderson’s canvas is larger than what it sounded like on the drawing board. He seems to be exploring the way religious cults thrive in postwar periods.
His script, while always at least arresting, doesn’t quite build the way we hope it will, despite its share of compelling if not hypnotic set pieces. But it remains a cerebral rather than an emotional journey that we find ourselves on.
And it is when we become aware of our minimal emotional investment in the late going that we realize that this technically impressive achievement will never become the transcendent viewing experience we thought it might.
Still, the film lives on the electricity of the charged early encounters between Phoenix and Hoffman, the former offering disturbingly outlandish intensity, the latter his characteristic uncanny preciseness, never more so than in one extended sequence during which Dodd “processes” Freddie.
And while we don’t necessarily buy their strong and immediate bond, this is nonetheless screen acting of the highest order: you’ll be seeing clips of this scene during the inevitable Oscar campaign for the two of them. Nominations would appear to be inevitable.
Ultimately, even if and when there is a certain mild disappointment at the film’s non-cathartic conclusion, it cannot erase the compelling imagery or guiding intelligence that we have been aware of throughout the film, even at those moments that seem exasperatingly self-indulgent.
So we’ll process 2½ stars out of 4 for The Master, an elusive psychological drama of debatable merit wrapped in a master class in acting.