Audiences either get director Paul Thomas Anderson’s films or they’re left reeling in the wakes they create: “The Master” is no exception. In this fiercely complex character study of two men, Anderson explores the search to belong — at any price.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic founder of a 1950s movement called The Cause. While on a yacht accompanied by his family and devotees, Dodd discovers a stowaway on board, a World War II Navy veteran turned drifter named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). When he senses Quell’s vast vulnerabilities, rather than kicking him off the ship, Dodd hones in on recruiting him into his ranks. He also takes a liking to Quell’s homemade cocktails laced with paint thinner, Lysol or whatever’s on hand.
Once Dodd has cleansed Quell’s toxic soul via “processing,” aka time-travel hypnosis therapy, Quell becomes a convert. Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), isn’t so anxious to welcome Quell into The Cause. She recognizes that his debilitating alcoholism and raging behavior could undermine their movement. Nonetheless, Dodd takes Quell on as his right-hand man. But, soon, the line between protégé and guinea pig becomes blurred as Quell realizes that Dodd is “making it all up as he goes along.”
Anderson (“There Will Be Blood”) admits to using the beginnings of Scientology as a “backdrop” for “The Master.” There are similarities between The Cause and Scientology in recruiting, interrogations and the reliving of past events. But, he doesn’t go so far as to offend the organization. He does, however, delve into the detrimental effects associated with demanding absolute allegiance.
All of that can be set aside because “The Master” is overshadowed by the beyond-incredible performances of Hoffman and Phoenix. Hoffman, known for embodying his characters (“Capote”), is exquisitely riveting as the intellectual charlatan, Dodd. His systematic sly whispers slip brilliantly into violent rants with such ease, it’s amazing to watch. His portrayal of the didactic Dodd is simultaneously slimy and sophisticated. Perfection.
Phoenix (“Walk the Line”) is back from his so-called four-year retirement (thankfully) with a vengeance. His portrayal of the violently troubled and damaged Quell is positively unnerving. A hunched posture, furtive glances and slanted smirks speak volumes about his character’s rabidity. He owns this character, and you can’t take your eyes off him.
It’s difficult to ascertain who’s the master in “The Master.” Anderson has crafted a visually arresting (shot in 70mm) and thought-provoking piece of filmmaking, worthy of vast recognition. Hoffman and Phoenix will, most likely, be contending for Best Actor Oscar at next year’s Academy Awards. All three are complicitous in having created a masterpiece.
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