In the years after WWII Freddie Quell, an unbalanced and misfit Navy veteran, finds and comes under the sway of an American cult led by charismatic demagogue Lancaster Dodd. Quell becomes a fanatic believer in the cult, but can never get the full approval from Dodd that he desperately seeks. Selective in its appeal, the film has a lot to say about the nature of religious belief, the personalities of radical followers and generally the functioning of cults. Paul Thomas Anderson writes and directs a film that is cryptic and compelling.
Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10.
Serving in World War II has left Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix) alcoholic and nearly psychotic. He looks like he has fallen back a step or two in evolution, dirty and emaciated, full of pent-up hatred, constantly drunk and on the verge of senseless violence. Quell tries a few jobs, screws up and barely avoids being jailed each time. Fleeing from one of his screw-ups, he hides by jumping on a convenient yacht. He awakes in the morning not to be thrown from the boat, but invited to talk to the owner of the yacht, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman as you have never seen him).
Dodd leads a philosophical quasi-religious cult adhering to Dodd’s philosophy and mystical discipline, The Cause. Dodd has use for Freddie and also a taste for a somewhat toxic alcoholic concoction that Freddie makes. Dodd begins to analyze Quell and to indoctrinate him into the cult. From the start, Dodd treats Quell like an old friend at the cost of Quell, submitting to Dodd’s pseudo-psychological examinations and treatments. Dodd’s power seems to heavily draw strength from his gentle but quietly creepy wife Peggy (Amy Adams, played with a touch of sinister unlike anyone she has played before). Peggy (among others) senses that Freddie is driven by hidden furies. She projects some odd combination of sinister and the innocence she has had in previous films.
Paul Thomas Anderson, who writes and directs, contrasts the very postures of Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd. Quell is gaunt and walks stooped over and round-shouldered. Dodd seems to feel supremely confident of his stout body and moves about almost like a dancer. Phoenix and Hoffman perform remarkable feats of physical acting.
The Master dovetails with Anderson’s last film, the five year-old ‘There Will Be Blood’, a film with it own charismatic and manipulative religious leader Eli Sunday. This film could in some ways be an elaboration on Eli Sunday taking to an extreme. Joaquin Phoenix seems not so much improved by his relation with the The Cause as channeled to use his rage to do what he sees as defending the religion.
Anderson uses a naturalistic style that in the early part of the film seems to be slowing the narrative in his 135 minute film. It is much the same style he gave ‘There Will Be Blood’, which also began with a slow segment. It does give the proceedings a feel of authenticity. Those hoping to see the film shed light on just how a cult works may be disappointed to find that the film is mostly about Quell. Though Dodd claims a scientific background, which may be fabricated, there are certainly some differences between The Cause and Scientology.
Anderson seems in his films to keep returning to people with unusual power and how they express this power over others: a gambling guru, a porn film director, an oil magnate and now the founder of his own religion. As the latter, Dodd may be the most powerful of these men. If Anderson is going to continue this theme it will be interesting to see where he goes from here. ‘The Master’ is both intelligent and scary. I rate it a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2012 Mark R. Leeper