Starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams
“The Master” feels like a puzzle. At the beginning of the film, pieces are piled in front of the audience. Slowly, they begin to come together, aligning into a familiar form. Sometimes it feels like not everything falls exactly into place. Corners are missing. The middle seem askew. But like a good puzzle it almost always seem easier when some friends help put it together. One can then focus his perspective to help get a clearer picture of how everything should be assembled.
First and foremost, “The Master” is a showcase for Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman—two actors who inhabit these characters and deliver a three-dimensional performance that rivals any special effect Hollywood can create. Phoenix owns every frame with a blank stare and sinister grin. His Freddie is a mentally ill lost soul, drifting through life with a perpetual hard-on and a penchant for mixing brain-erasing batches of hooch. After a stint in the Navy during the World War II, Freddie tries to fit into society, but the pieces don’t fit together well. He goes from one dead-end job to the next. Just before his life completely falls apart, he stows away onto a boat and meets Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).
Dodd is a kind of carbon-paper version of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the controversial Scientology religion. Dodd’s a writer-turned-pop-psychologist who turned his half-baked theories of past-life regression into a full-blown movement that is quickly gaining momentum. He’s a charismatic leader who attracts loyal followers, a carnival barker who finds validation in the adoration of others. When Dodd and Freddie cross paths, there’s an instant synergy between them. Freddie is a lost soul without purpose; Dodd is a megalomaniac desperate for someone to believe in him.
“The Cause,” as Dodd calls it, has all the makings of a cult. It brings Freddie some degree of purpose, and he’s willing to violently fight to protect this dysfunctional family unit he has been adopted into. Dodd’s family, especially his wife (Amy Adams), sees Freddie as a potential threat—an unknown and unpredictable quantity. The internal issues are exacerbated by external pressures as criticism of Dodd’s teaching and legal troubles are putting “the Cause” in question. Like any paper dictator, Dodd takes these criticism poorly, lashing out at anyone who dares to challenge his teachings.
There’s a very clear attempt at showing us the similarities between Dodd and Freddie. One is the unchecked id—the base, instinct–driven impulses that push us. The other is the superego, believing these urges and desires can be suppressed through sheer force of will. Freddie and Dodd are the same person: lonely, desperate for validation, and whose lives diverge drastically based on the choice between conscious thought and unconscious desires. Yet, neither pursuit brings them any closer to the truth.
Like Anderson’s previous works, the film is a conversation-starter that can lead to long discussions about motivation and intent. I can’t remember the last time a movie motivated so many conversations. Actually, I can: Anderson’s previous effort, “There Will Be Blood.” “The Master”contains a lot of overriding themes of meaning and purpose—the dark depths to which lost souls are capable of sinking. It tackles the ethics of a ramshackle religion that Dodd has created and the dangers of putting faith in those who proclaim to have answers.
Still, “The Master” is not a perfect film. Though the performances are astounding, the cinematography is stunning and the musical score is eerily affecting, I didn’t find all of them connected. At the end of the puzzle, I had a hard time making out what all these pieces should reveal. I found myself feeling the same way after seeing Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom.” It’s familiar territory yet strangely disconnected.
Still, I have to recommend this movie, because like all of Anderson’s films, it’s a truly original piece work that deserves consideration. I think some people will unabashedly hail it a classic. I can also see people walking out thinking it’s an unmitigated mess. In reality, it’s neither. “The Master” is solid, with some lofty ideas, amazing performances, stunning aesthetics and a challenging narrative. It will spark many good conversations.