Review of The Master

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A 1950's-themed drama film written, produced and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams & Laura Dern. A charismatic intellectual hatches a faith-based organization that begins to catch on in post-WWII America. The core is the relationship between the Master (Seymour Hoffman) and Freddie (Phoenix), a twentysomething drifter who becomes the leader's lieutenant. As the faith begins to gain a fervent following, Freddie finds himself questioning the belief system he has embraced, and his mentor.
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Movie Review: "The Master"

-- Rating: R
Length: 137 minutes
Release Date: September 21, 2012
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Genre: Drama

"The Master" is acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film dealing with troubled souls seemingly lost in a corrupt world. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, the film has been purported to be a thinly veiled portrayal of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. While there are definite allusions to the controversial religion, the film focuses instead on troubled World War II veteran Freddie Quell (Phoenix) as he comes under the guidance of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), founder of the Cause.

When the film opens, the audience is introduced to Quell as a drunk, sex-obsessed Naval officer suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He can't hold a job and loses a gig as a department store photographer for fighting with a customer. Even a job as a farmhand ends in disaster as a fellow worker is poisoned by one of Quell's homemade liquor concoctions. On the run, Quell comes upon a boat where Lancaster Dodd is holding a lavish party. He sneaks onto the boat and attempts to blend in with its occupants.

Quell and the audience are introduced to Dodd, a charismatic man in the middle of celebrating his daughter's wedding. This self-proclaimed Renaissance man takes Quell under his wing, putting him through a personality test that introduces him to the Cause, a religion that teaches humans that they are not animals, but are in control of their own feelings. Dodd's religion is slowly catching on throughout the country, and it has both admirers and skeptics. Quell becomes Dodd's enforcer, despite the misgivings of Dodd's wife, Peggy (Adams), and his son Val (Jesse Plemons).

The standout performer in "The Master" is Joaquin Phoenix. Already known for his acting prowess, Phoenix takes on the role of Freddie Quell with a ferocity that was dearly missed during his self-imposed hiatus. He enters the screen looking worn down, but it's the look in his eyes that truly sells the sadness of Quell to the audience. Whatever demons Phoenix holds down in his private life feel greatly exposed in this film. This is a role that is absolutely deserving of an Oscar.

Hoffman, who always brings something new to the roles he plays, portrays Lancaster Dodd as an intelligent huckster, constantly changing the message and the rules of his religion even when his followers begin to question his motives. While clearly a supporting role to Phoenix, Hoffman plays off of his more combustive costar, reacting to his outbursts of violence and rage with a calm demeanor that is as unsettling as it is nurturing. Lancaster Dodd is hiding his own demons, making it apparent that he sees Quell as a reflection of his younger self. When the two are sitting next to each other in neighboring jail cells, Hoffman unleashes Dodd's rage and anger in one of the film's best scenes.

While Phoenix and Hoffman are the centerpieces of the film, the supporting roles are just as intriguing. Amy Adams plays Peggy Dodd as a quiet woman who knows how to take control when she needs to. There are hints that she may be the true master behind the Cause, with one scene in particular giving her room to grab control of her husband's religion. Jesse Plemons plays Val Dodd as a skeptic; the character openly says that his father makes up the rules as he goes along.

As is typical for most of his career, Anderson has created a protagonist who isn't easy to root for. Neither Quell nor Dodd is a good man. The strength of Anderson's direction is that he brings out acting that makes the audience want to understand these disturbed individuals better. Like Tom Cruise in "Magnolia" and Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood," Phoenix plays Quell as an unlikeable person whom you will want to follow as he falls deeper into his personal hell.

Much has been made of the film being about Scientology. While the Cause and Dodd's personality tests are obvious references to the religion, the film is ultimately about the effects of war and the way it destroys the soul. Freddie Quell is a lost individual, a symbol for the thousands of individuals who come home from battle to shattered lives.

If there is one complaint about "The Master," it's that the movie doesn't hit home after one viewing. With so many potential plotlines flying through the middle of the film, one would think that it would end with a boil. Instead, it becomes a slow simmer, and like real life, simply ends without a payoff or conclusion. If you want the satisfaction of everything being tied up in a bow, you may feel that this film is missing something. However, for those who want to be challenged, "The Master" is one of the most rewarding movies of the year.

Rating: 4 out of 5