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Cultlike following

Hoffman, Phoenix “masterful” as Scientology founder, follower

by Willie Krischke

Like me, you’ve probably heard that “The Master” is about the pseudo-religion Scientology, featuring a cult leader played by Philip Seymour Hoffman who bears more than a slight resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard, and a troubled follower, played by Joaquin Phoenix. You might have heard that there was a lot of buzz and controversy about this film before it was ever released, with Scientologists launching their own publicity campaign against it and threatening lawsuits.

This all sets up certain expectations for the film, but I’m here to tell you: you need to leave those at the door. This is not a juicy fictional expose of one of the weirdest religions to gain traction in America this century. This is a Paul Thomas Anderson film. And just as “There Will Be Blood” wasn’t really about the oil boom, and “Boogie Nights” wasn’t really about the porn industry, “The Master” is really only incidentally about the rise of an American cult. The pieces are there, but they’re just stage trapping; they’re not what matters. A lot like the two films I mentioned, this one is about an unconventional father/son relationship, in which the father and the son are both a little bit nuts.

Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, who has lots of ideas about past lives and aliens and something called “processing,” which amounts to intense and manipulative counseling sessions. He desperately wants to be a great man, and it’s hard to tell if he really believes in the BS he’s shilling or not. Buried under the countenance of a wise and calm spiritual leader is a boiling vat of rage that boils over occasionally, to startling effect, when he is challenged. Hoffman is reliably great (when was the last time he wasn’t great?) but he’s almost totally outshined by Joaquin Phoenix’s remarkably physical performance as Freddie, a World War II veteran and drifter who is drawn to Hoffman and his cause.

Phoenix delivers a character who is so filled with rage and confusion that it affects the way he moves; he is hunched and stiff and talks out of one side of his mouth, as if half of his face is paralyzed.  He regularly erupts into fits of violent anger, but these are moments of release, not of tension. He serves as the perfect counterpoint to Dodd. Dodd’s explosions are startling and abrupt, because he is so calm and collected before and after them. But with Freddie, one feels tense – and wary – when he isn’t manifesting his rage in some way. When Freddie’s acting all calm and collected, that’s a sure sign something terrible is about to happen. It’s such a profound performance, it’s hard to believe this is the same actor who played the incestuous villain Commodus opposite Russell Crowe in “Gladiator” years ago.  

It’s hard to say what draws these two characters together. PT Anderson avoids easy answers and isn’t afraid of being quite opaque. Does Freddie believe anything Dodd is saying? Sometimes he seems to, and is ready and willing to slit the throat of anyone who disagrees; other times he’s smirking and shifting his way through sermons and sessions. (I think that’s the way Anderson wants it; belief is, after all, more of a fluid than a static thing.) Dodd’s processing sessions are full of quacked-up psychology, but that doesn’t mean they’re entirely ineffective. In the process of manipulating Freddie, he does help him to deal with some of the scars of his past. And why doesn’t Dodd throw the troublesome Freddie overboard? He brings nothing to the movement – no money, no reputation, he can’t even point to him as a success story: Freddie seems just as troubled at the end of the film as he did at the beginning.

Dodd’s wife (played by Amy Adams, who just gets better and better with every film she makes) works hard to keep her husband focused and moving forward in the establishment of his cult, and is such a powerful personality it’s easy to believe she is the driving force behind it all and hard to believe he’d ever do anything to defy her, and yet when it comes to Freddie, he does. She says Freddie’s a cancer, weighing them down, and she’s right. But Dodd keeps him around anyway. Why? I don’t know. There’s a strong bond there, but while we watch scene after scene of it, it’s never explained.  Anderson isn’t interested in explanation. Nothing is clear cut in “The Master;” there’s no way to come down on one side or the other, condemning or praising any of it. It’s all far more complicated than that.

And that may be the film’s greatest weakness. At its worst, it’s a series of masterfully directed, incredibly acted scenes that don’t really fit together into a whole. Watching it is akin to working on a beautiful complex jigsaw puzzle that once you get all the pieces to fit together doesn’t form a picture of anything. It’s a powerful, bewildering experience. It’s not exactly a satisfying one.

In my mind, great movies are full of great elements – acting, soundtrack, pacing, mood, etc. – all in service of a powerful story worth telling. “The Master” has all of the elements, but no story. I know that for some, that will be exactly what makes it art – it’s not tied to such pedestrian and bourgeoisie conventions and narrative and plot. The performances, the direction and the cinematography are great, and that should be enough. But to me, that just makes it artsy. It’s certainly better than most insufferably artsy films; I found it both compelling and confusing, and I’ll probably watch it again, just to see if I missed anything. But I’d imagine that if you’re not drawn into the character dynamics, if you’re not willing to sit through scene after scene of watching two very talented actors play off of each other, you’re going to find this a very long, possibly even boring, film.



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