Published on September 26th, 2012 | by Paul Angle
Going to the Movies- The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master reached theaters with as much critical fanfare as any film in recent memory. It set box office records in its first week of limited release, grossing over $720,000 on just five screens (averaging just under $146,000 per screen), so the Weinstein Company accelerated the film’s expansion to capitalize on the fantastic word of mouth.
Does the film live up to the hype? Ultimately I think opinions will be divided. Fans of Anderson’s previous work (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) will certainly enjoy the visual style and deliberate pacing of the film. However, this is also what may keep more casual filmgoers from enjoying the movie.
What cannot be argued are the fantastic performances Anderson gets from his cast. Joaquin Phoenix brings such an odd physicality to his role as Freddy Quell, a disturbed, alcoholic WWII vet whose life is spiraling downward until he meets charismatic writer Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that it is fascinating to watch. Freddy is unbalanced, prone to violent outbursts, obsessed with sex, and spends his spare time making alcoholic concoctions with an extra kick—usually some thing poisonous like turpentine or paint thinner. He makes everyone around him uncomfortable, as if they can sense the violence just under the surface that can come out at any moment.
By contrast, Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays Lancaster Dodd in such a cool and controlled manner that at first you wonder how the two men become so connected. Why is Dodd drawn to Freddie? He first discovers Freddie as a stowaway on a boat the night before his daughter’s wedding (Freddie stumbled aboard in a drunken stupor before the ship set sail). But there is an instant connection between the two, and when Dodd first introduces Freddie to an exercise from The Cause, Freddie treats it as a joke; however, he soon opens himself up completely to it. Hoffman is controlled, charismatic, and plays the founder of this religious movement perfectly. We see brief glimpses of his inner struggle, and the overall performance is spectacular.
Also of note is the performance given by Amy Adams as Dodd’s true believer wife Peggy. She keeps Dodd focused on The Cause and helps him see what’s best for it, even when Dodd wants to do the opposite. In Adams’ performance we see a woman who has given herself completely to The Cause and will protect it and her husband at any cost.
One other point needs to be made. While Anderson said that the film’s backdrop is inspired by the early days of Scientology, it is not a film about Scientology. If anyone goes into this film expecting to see a hard-hitting expose about Scientology they will be sorely disappointed. There are certainly common threads between Scientology and The Cause—both beginning just after WWII, their founders being writers, L. Ron Hubbard and Freddie Quell both being Navy men who spent the last few months of the war in a hospital—the film is not about the religion itself. It is about the characters and how the religion affects their lives and becomes part of them.
Overall, this film is going to divide its audience. Fans of Paul Thomas Anderson will hail it as another great film from a visionary filmmaker; mainstream audiences will probably find it slow paced and its resolution ultimately unsatisfying. I found it to be a film filled with great performances (ones that will deservedly be recognized by the Academy) but whose story is not clearly realized. It is a film that makes the audience work too hard to solve the ambiguity of its arc. But with the “masterful” performances given by the three lead actors it is well worth seeing, and will keep you talking about the film long after you leave the theater.