Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), returns from World War II unsettled and uncertain of his future, looking for it in a bottle. He drifts into the orbit of the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is in the process of building a quasi spiritual movement, The Cause, in the post-war confusion of America. Freddie becomes a disciple, and Dodd takes him in as a son, with the blessing of his supportive wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). But their bonds of friendship are severely tested as The Cause fails to fulfil their needs.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The turbulent wash of a navy vessel introduces us to Paul Thomas Anderson's idiosyncratic, festival-hopping film, The Master, before the camera lingers in close up on the still helmeted face of Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix is Freddie Quell, the sailor returning from the war, only to remain all at sea in every sense other than physical. The most notable aspect of this opening scene is the music, a purposeful orchestral cue with dictating rhythms.
This shot of the wash behind a ship returns later in the film as one of its motifs, to be joined by frolicking on the beach, in a flashback to the sailors relaxing and building a woman of sand. This, too recurs, its symbolism finally clear - but I won't disclose why and how as it would ruin the revelation.
As we follow Freddie in his drifting days, making and drinking his own moonshine, his stooped shoulders and slightly twisted mouth feed into his character, a figure bent out of shape by a world he cannot comprehend or control. We learn in passing that his mother is a mental institution, but there is scant other information about Freddie - except the apparent emptiness of his soul.
When he wonders aboard a boat moored in the vicinity of San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge to gatecrash a party in full swing on the upper deck, he is destined to sail again, this time as guest of the man his circle call Master, and whose notable new book, The Cause is by-lined Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Much has been written about the two central performances from Phoenix and Hoffman, following the film's highly praised premiere at the Venice film festival in August 2012 and all of it highly positive. I agree: they are both remarkable characterisations, complete and complex, visceral and riveting. Phoenix is always edgy (recall him as Commodus, the Emperor's spurned son in Gladiator ) but here his edginess is more layered and his character a volatile, pained, lost figure searching ... searching.
Hoffman's creation is just as fascinating, a large, ruddy man with a brittle moustache and a soft manner which hides a volcanic temper when threatened or questioned. He is a Master because he has followers - and the screenplay suggests he has followers because he manipulates their 1950-era confusion with his certainty. He is a man full of himself yet vulnerable; his Cause is a mystery mish mash of quasi spiritual mumbo jumbo and pseudo scientific fantasies.
Anderson says in his notes to the film that he did a lot of historical reading from the period, from Steinbeck to L. Ron Hubbard, and the latter's creation, Dianetics, is the basis for the Cause. But this is not a film about Scientology, although we do take a good long peep inside the 'processing' which is the trademark of Scientology. On one level, if our expectation of the film is to take us into a surgical analysis of the cult, it disappoints. On the other hand, Anderson need hardly do more than show some of the 'processing' and other rituals devised by Lancaster Dodd to let us draw our own conclusions whether it is absurd or not.
Lancaster is drawn to Freddie for reasons he can't explain - and vice versa - in a love-hate relationship. This is at the heart of the film, and the way it plays out is one of the film's most challenging aspects (and it has a few!).
Amy Adams is a strong presence as the pregnant Peggy Dodd, not only wife to Lancaster but an active partner in his work. All the supports are superb, and the women in the Cause happily shed their clothes for a strange dance to a band (its women also naked) in which Master dances the lead role and sings I'll Go No More A-roving. He also sings On A Slow Boat To China, in the film's most unexpected scene - and for perplexing reasons.
Speaking of music, as the film's opening cue signals, Johnny Greenwood's underscore is a force to be reckoned with, while the incidental songs are often surprising treasures; notable among them is Ella Fitzgerald's silky version of Get Thee Behind Me Satan (Irving Berlin), the orchestral version of You Go To My Head and Billy Strayhorn's melancholy jazz classic, Lotus Blossom performed by Duke Ellington.
The Master is not so much a class on cults and their leaders, nor a psychological drama; it seems more like a cinematic rumination about the search for direction and reason in 1950s America, wrapped in an odd sort of buddy movie.
Review by Louise Keller:
Two compelling performances fly high on the mast of Paul Thomas Anderson's film The Master, depicting strong characters that are wildly contradictory, yet inexplicably drawn to each other. Control and the lack of it are defining traits of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix); the former sees Freddie as his guinea-pig and protégée while Freddie looks to Dodd as a potential saviour.
The story is set in a 1950s cult-like community with ideals and practices of dianetics that aspire to control the mind and body by controversial methods. Anderson tackles this fascinating subject matter with its powerhouse portraits and relationships like a steadfast ship sailing smoothly through an unpredictable storm, allowing the peaks and troughs of the journey to be transmitted wholly to his audience.
Swirls of turquoise sea from the wash of a ship's wake are the first thing we see, before meeting Freddie (Phoenix), a former wartime marine, whose experiences have left him literally at sea: an alcoholic with uncontrollable anger issues and deviant sexual obsessions. The home made brew he concocts from anything he can find, including paint stripper, even kills one unseasoned colleague during a brief work-stint harvesting cabbages. His chance meeting with Dodd (Hoffman), on whose boat Freddie passes out in a drunken stupor, is the beginning of the yin-yang relationship that lies at the heart of the film.
Hoffman oozes gravitas, charm and confidence as the group leader (some might imagine to be based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard), whose hypnotic manner, deliberation and calm are a total contrast to Freddie's tortured, manic, unpredictable wildcard of a persona. Phoenix delivers a wonderful performance, utterly filled with pain and conflict. Dodd balances his serious philosophies with the revelation that it is laughter that unlocks life's secrets. The scenes between Hoffman and Phoenix are fully loaded, and we are rewarded every time. There is no more potent a moment, than that near the end of the film, in which Dodd sings Slow Boat to China to an emotional Freddie.
But Dodd (a self confessed 'hopelessly inquisitive man') is not the only brains of the family. Amy Adams is chillingly good as his wife, who is far more than an idle onlooker. The controversial practices of processing in which a person is hypnotically guided through painful memories in order to deal with them are canvassed (sometimes with unpredictable results), as is the notion that the practices can allegedly cure illnesses.
The themes and nuances of the relationships are fraught with complexity and Anderson handles the material and sensitivities beautifully. Shot on 65mm stock offering a rich saturated look, the film looks stunning, while its 50s inspired jazz and classical score provide a moody restraint. It is as though Anderson is stoking up the fires of our emotions as we peer into the window of this unique and bizarre world.
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MASTER, THE (MA15+)
CAST: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers, Laura Dern, Christopher Evan Welch, Patty McCormack
PRODUCER: Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar
DIRECTOR: Paul Thomas Anderson
SCRIPT: Paul Thomas Anderson
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Mihai Malaimari Jr
EDITOR: Leslie Jones, Peter McNulty
MUSIC: Jonny Greenwood
PRODUCTION DESIGN: David Crank, Jack Fisk
RUNNING TIME: 137 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 8, 2012