Belief is a powerful thing. People with faith will often do anything for their beliefs, and the people or ideas that foster faith are quite literally our Gods.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is a movie about faith, about power, control, and lost souls finding something bigger than themselves. The story takes place in the postwar America of the 1950s. People are looking for meaning, and the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has plenty to offer his followers. He peddles a mix of pseudo-science and religion inviting his followers to explore their inner selves through techniques like time-travel hypnosis, exploring past lives to better characterize current issues.
Remember in the ’50s regression therapy was popular as the field of psychology exploded into mainstream culture. It’s into this setting that the directionless, thoroughly uncivilized Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) floats. As the men get to know each other and Freddie begins to find meaning, questions of control and power emerge. Can Freddie save himself, can these men save each other, and how far will faith take them?
While publicly director Paul Thomas Anderson and the cast have been cagey on the subject, there are some undeniable parallels to the birth of Scientology and the man at the center of that movement, L. Ron Hubbard. The film isn’t exactly about that relationship or that organization, however even casually informed viewers will recognize some striking similarities between The Master’s “Cause” and the Scientology movement.
The focus here though isn’t on the mechanics of the movement, but rather the characters living it. Emotions are raw and vividly portrayed by a cast of amazing actors giving stellar performances. Joaquin Phoenix has “returned” to acting with a performance so staggeringly honest his past transgressions making 2010’s I’m Still Here have to be forgiven. He plays Freddie as an open wound with a sad and searching loneliness. This is his story, and Phoenix owns the role.
Likewise, the always interesting Philip Seymour Hoffman completely commands with a mesmerizing performance as Lancaster Dodd. He is utterly charming, insightful, and always carries himself with purpose. Through the tight scripting and subtle performance cues by Hoffman, we can see the cracks in the character. His world may not be as perfectly laid out as we’re led to believe. Supporting performances by Amy Adams and Laura Dern are also very impressive. Don’t be surprised to see this film mentioned more come award season, since both Hoffman and Phoenix give such laudable performances.
This is a film about control and power. Like Anderson’s last film There Will Be Blood, it’s a study of men trying to wrestle their world into something understandable. As The Master unfolds, you’ll have to question who is ultimately in control here. Can we change the course of our lives? How far does faith go? The film poses hard questions and doesn’t give any easy answers.
The Master is a movie that needs to be seen, it needs to be experienced. It is impactful, thoughtful, and it says something important. The story resonates, and the performances will stick with you. This is one of the best films of the year.