Film review: The Master

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Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman star in Paul Thomas Anderson’s post-war drama, The Master. Photo: The Weinstein Company

With all the hype and brouhaha surrounding the release of The Master, it’s easy to overlook one important consideration: Whether the movie is good. So let’s get that out of the way. The Master is good. Grand photography, lush production design, and big, appropriately showy performances make it somewhat captivating. At a certain point, though, all those things are for naught, because this movie doesn’t have much of a story to go along with its technical brilliance.
At its core, The Master is the love story of two men, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled, alcoholic Navy and World War II veteran, and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an L. Ron Hubbard-like inventor of his own philosophy called The Cause. After being discharged from the Navy and spending time in a military hospital—during a Rorschach test, Freddie sees everything as human genitalia—Freddie first works as a department store photographer, then as a field hand in California. He loses both jobs. At the first, he gets into a physical altercation with a customer. At the second, a man who steals Freddie’s homemade booze nearly drinks himself to death. Freddie flees, fearing retribution from his fellow workers and law enforcement and stows away on a boat. On that boat is Dodd, and there the great love story begins. Dodd wants Freddie to make him more of the weird alcohol he’s concocted like an amateur chemist—at various points we see him using paint thinner and photography chemicals—and in turn, Dodd becomes Freddie’s mentor, friend, and therapist.

The scene in which Dodd helps Freddie through processing—a cornerstone of The Cause in which Dodd asks a series of questions and insists the subject answer honestly—is powerful. We see, for the first time, Freddie’s alcoholic bluster fading away and get a glimpse of his truly rotten family life, the bonds of friendship growing between the two men. Unfortunately it doesn’t progress beyond than that. Phoenix’s performance seems rooted in the notion that it’s a great performance in an important film, but he looks more like he’s channeling Popeye the Sailor than a flesh-and-blood creation. He’s talks out of the side of his mouth and his right eye is in a nearly permanent squint.
For those looking for an indictment of Scientology or Hubbard himself, it’s not here. The Cause serves as a backdrop, and though it has hints of psychological shenanigans and cult-like fanaticism, it mostly just lurks. The most ardent follower is Dodd’s latest wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who plays her role with a quietly icy fervor. She’s a strict adherent to The Cause and doesn’t approve of the way Freddie keeps getting Dodd drunk. Of course, most at the center of The Cause know Dodd is a charlatan—his books present at-odds views of the same philosophy and Dodd explodes defending the discrepancies—but this is Freddie’s movie and his character isn’t all that interesting. It’s too bad, because Hoffman effortlessly embodies Dodd’s grand figure, but Freddie is more interested in jerking off, and ultimately, that means the movie is, too.

The Master/R, 137 minutes/Regal Downtown Mall 6

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