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The Master – A Cult Unpure: Movie Review

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A Controversial Film with Limited Distribution: The Master, Review

The Master: A Sickeningly Sweet Romance with Belief

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012). Photo Courtesy The Weinstein CompanyPaul Thomas Anderson has written and directed what is one of the most thought-provoking films that I have seen in a long time. The Master evoked the madness of a religious scene in its making, but did not focus on criticizing Scientology itself. Instead, it gave an up close and personal look at two individuals attempting to free themselves of issues that have been inherent in their bodies for trillions of years, according to the spiritual studies of Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a World War Two veteran named Freddie Quell who stumbles drunkenly onto a boat, and is awoken to meet his new master. The two characters are so brilliantly acted, and their personalities contrast each other so grandly that they feed off of each other with a perfect blend of dysfunctional love. Freddie Quell is a drunk, and an unpredictable man with a hair-trigger temper. He makes the perfect candidate for Dodd’s Cause, the ultimate challenge for Dodd’s quest to purify the spirit. What develops is a sort of father-son relationship in which Dodd conveys absolute control over his own world, and Quell grows to view the abstractly-driven prophet as a sort of God, one who can lay anchor to his wandering soul.

The Master is not so much a critique of Scientology. It is a thorough character study, one in which time seems to stand still. We are exposed to the psychology of both the follower and the leader, Quell and Dodd, both serving each other’s needs. Quell is instant trouble everywhere he goes. In Dodd’s cult, spiritual perfection is the goal, something that Dodd preaches to be “easily attainable,” an attitude that is so distant from Freddie Quell’s explosive mindset. Quell is a man who lives every moment for its possible pleasure, attempting to sleep with every girl in the cult, the type of animal which Dodd is attempting to tame. The relationship between these two is what makes the film compelling, not its story line as they defy each other’s normal mode for communication, and become pals in a grotesquely dependent way.

The storyline brushes up against what Freddie Quell was meant to do with his life, and what he has become. It shows that he had a love interest that he promised to return to once he finished with the war. He never went back for her, but instead led a life of drunken disorder which landed him in the hands of Dodd, who incidentally views himself as a kind of God, a man who writes his own Cause. We don’t so much care about Quell’s having abandoned his love because it never quite seems he pursues anything real in life without his mind being distracted. And we don’t view Dodd as a villain for using Quell as his guinea pig. It seems as if Quell feels loved, and as if Dodd might very well return the love for Quell, though the power is clearly in Dodd’s hands, whose paternal attitude is at times condescending towards Quell. The wily war veteran is made humble by Dodd, whereas in any other situation he is a threat. The lost finds his leader and the leader finds his muse, and the two maintain a problematic bond that intrigues the viewer into a web of strange turns.

It was the acting of Phoenix and Hoffman that make the film worth watching, and not the plot line which does not manage to find a regular course or conclusion. Both are so egomaniacal and yet also so delicately devoted to each other that they make an enigmatic pair. Anderson makes sure to dedicate the film’s scenes towards a harrowing inspection of intimate moments, making each scene breathe with the specific reality of the up close and uncomfortable. Whether it be Quell’s sex drive or impatience with the cult that surrounds him or Dodd’s uneven temper, which he barely hides with his good-humored indulgence of his fans.

As the characters in the film engage in “direct processing”, a system that works to purify the animal in humanity by having him uncover his memories and relive them, we see the question of identity present itself as something malleable. The ironic part is that neither Quell nor Dodd are malleable of spirit, but are steadfast in their ways, and due to this the movie insists on a kind of stuck feeling. What begins as a possible spiritual quest between the two devolves into instead the more ugly aspects of their direct realities, such as Dodd’s wife who is all but terrifying in her rigid composure. The scenes make us overtly familiar with each character.

The pace of the film is slow, making it less of a story and more of a thorough examination of an uncertain relationship. For those who love a good dramatic study, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are at their best in this film.

Ezra Prior is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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