In a way, we've been duped over what to expect from The Master, director P.T. Anderson's deep, dark fable about a Second World War vet who joins a group very much like Scientology (legal disclaimer in the credits notwithstanding).
As much as the organization called The Cause resembles the Church founded by L. Ron Hubbard, as much as words like "processing" are substituted for "auditing," and as much as Philip Seymour Hoffman's grandiose group leader Lancaster Dodd may evoke Hubbard himself, this is not the focus of the story.
Caught in the crosshairs of Anderson's lens is Joaquin Phoenix (remember him?) going crazy to an Oscar-worthy degree. We're talking Christian Bale crazy times two.
The Master is the kind of movie that doesn't spell out its message in chalk on a blackboard, so your interpretation may vary. But with Freddie Quell, a drunken, sex-obsessed, violently misanthropic ex-Navy man, Phoenix seems to have created the consummate non-conforming fish-out-of-water that so fascinated the likes of Kerouac and Burroughs in the very era this movie takes place.
When we meet him, he is acting strangely on the shores of some recently liberated Pacific island on or about VJ day. Said strangeness includes humping a representation of a nude woman, shaped in sand. Not surprisingly, we next see him being analyzed by a military psychiatrist for signs of what was then called "battle fatigue."
In a portrayal that often strays from chronological order, it becomes clear that Freddie wants to belong, but feels estranged wherever he is -- with his teenage sweetheart back home, on the road and ostensibly free, or clutched to the bosom of a controlling cult.
It's when drunken misadventure finds him stowing away on a boat commandeered by Dodd and his followers that The Master clearly becomes a parable about freedom versus the comfort of belonging.
At first beguiled by Freddie's ability to make liquid intoxicants out of anything at hand, Dodd becomes more deeply fascinated with his uncontrollable new acolyte (much to the concern of Dodd's domineering wife, played severely by Amy Adams). The electricity may exist because of the challenge Freddie represents, or there may be an attraction which The Master is satisfied to merely hint at.
Anderson (There Will Be Blood) gives the scenes with The Cause a burnished hue, a stateliness that plays well against the occasional sexually charged scene, and a hardwood wall for Freddie to literally bang his head against. As The Cause becomes famous, and is attacked by the press and hounded by the law, Freddie finds a role as its designated muscle, beating up anyone he sees as a threat to his "home" (a scene where he violently refuses to accept being in jail is one of the great wig-out moments in recent film memory).
But if Phoenix seems the likeliest candidate for an Oscar nom in The Master, neither Hoffman nor Adams should be overlooked. Hoffman in particular, conveys the kind of jovial exterior and ruthless interior that suggests the kind of magnetism that would make followers "faithful."
This is dark and thoughtful -- albeit cold -- material, with the best acting we've seen this year.
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