It’s impossible to deny the correlation between “The Master” and the origins of Scientology. No story about a midcentury mystic starting a religion based on sci fi could avoid the comparison, but Tom Cruise and John Travolta needn’t boycott the film. Director Paul Thomas Anderson simply uses the birth of the religion as a backdrop for a study in extreme behavior focusing on two troubled men, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix).
Quell, a WWII vet with a taste for gut rot hooch and post traumatic stress disorder drifts through life until he meets Dodd, a self described “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher [and] hopelessly inquisitive man.” Dodd is the godhead of a new movement called The Cause aimed at maximizing human potential. His disciples, who believe his mix of sci fi and religion will rid them of past trauma, call him the Master.
Quell is invited to join the group with the welcome, “leave your worries for a while. They’ll be there when you get back. Your memories aren’t invited.” The bewildered sailor agrees, becoming a pet project for Dodd, who “processes” him to cleanse past lives and free his spirit. What follows is a beautifully choreographed ballet of loyalty, deceit and betrayal with Quell and Dodd taking turns leading the dance.
Giving away too much more isn’t fair to the movie or the viewer. The relationship between the men is complex. It’s doctor-patient, or perhaps father-son, maybe almost oedipal. It’s been suggested that Quell is a Tyler Durden character; that he doesn’t exist except as a manifestation of the rage that Dodd manages to keep in check most of the time. I don’t buy that. They may be two sides of the same coin, but they are definitely two different people.
As Quell Phoenix is a raw twitching nerve, part Brando, part Bukowski. He’s restless, disturbed and feral. The kind of man who enjoys drinking a home brew made from paint thinner, picking fights and crying when he thinks of lost love. Emotionally damaged, he’s unpredictable and Phoenix embodies him. It’s an astonishing, revelatory performance that recalls “Raging Bull” era De Niro.
As untamed as Phoenix is, Hoffman is controlled, handing in a performance brimming with confidence, power and charisma. Imagine Orson Welles as a wannabe prophet and you get the idea. He’s a charlatan with a silver tongue, a true believer who presents his wacko ideas “as a gift to homo sapiens,” and, alongside Phoenix a lock for an Oscar nomination.
The leads are joined by an impressive cast of supporting actors, notably Amy Adams as the steely wife of the Master and Laura Dern as an early disciple.
“The Master” won’t satisfy those who like their stories tied up in neat bows. It is an enigmatic story about impenetrable people; an opaque, singular experience that is best thought of as a tone poem about man’s aspirations and failures.