Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix; Philip Seymour Hoffman; Amy Adams;
What goes into forming a cult,and sustaining it? How much is faith,and what proportion fraud? Where does good samaritan end and clever charlatan begin? The questions cant have easy answers,and writer-director Anderson doesnt attempt any.
Here are two complex and completely different characters playing off and feeding off each other,seeking gratification in the other,looking to be whole and taking The Master along to what could be its only incomplete conclusion. For,betrayals notwithstanding,belief once formed can be a pretty resilient thing.
When we first meet Freddie (Phoenix),he is a naval soldier towards the end of World War II whos reeling on the edge of a precipice even before peace has been called. He drinks everything from paint thinners to photographic chemicals to toilet cleaners,sometimes all of them together,sees female genitalia everywhere,and after the war,finds himself thrown out of a succession of jobs following episodes he finds impossible to avoid.
It is while running away from one such episode that he lands on the boat of Lancaster Dodd,a.k.a The Master (Hoffman). While Anderson has insisted their inspiration was only partly Scientology,there is no doubt whose ideas Dodd and his Cause espouse. He invokes past trauma and past lives,after sending his patients into some kind of a hypnosis,seeking to make them free of their troubles. Men are not meant to be animals but perfect,he insists both theories sounding suspiciously like the cult/religion of Scientology.
Dodd takes immediate liking to Freddie. Even as he explains it away as lure for the secret potion that Freddie was carrying in his whiskey flask and from which he had a swig,you instantly know there is something more. As Dodd gets Freddie to open up during his processing sessions what Scientologys L Ron Hubbard called auditing you get the first glimpses of what the two may be seeking from each other.
Freddie,who doesnt have a family,has lost his love and doesnt believe in god,needs something to anchor him to life. And what better than a ready-made support system in a cult such as the Cause,with a guardian herding his flock together and telling them what to do? Dodd,who is feverishly preaching his methods and trying to browbeat naysayers (including his own son),needs someone to be his miracle. And who better than a man everyone believes cant be made better?
As they spend time together,the faith of both is tested Freddie fights himself and others to try and retain his,Dodd wont let his weakness show to anybody but Freddie. There are hints of eroticism in the relationship,but these are just hints.
In Phoenix and Hoffman,who were both nominated for Best Actor Oscars,Anderson has two artists in top of their form. Phoenix as the maniacal,nervous,restless Freddie is almost physically painful to watch in his frailty,haunch,mumbling and his desperation to comprehend something,anything. Hoffmans appears the less demanding role in comparison,but you have to just feel the charisma he exudes and the strength and fervour he brings to his Master,while giving just glimpses of the slyness that lies underneath,to realise what you are watching here.
Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd,Hoffmans wife,has the role of the third fiddle. However,the actress (nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscar) shows again the breadth of her talent by making Peggy both the ideal supportive feminine wife,who is either always pregnant or raising a child,as well as the strong matriarch who ensures Dodd realises the limits of his reach and stays well within them.
There are times when The Master appears to be speaking only to itself,so engrossed in the richness of its visuals and the depth of its characters that it doesnt care to move along. Its two leads too appear disconnected occasionally and it doesnt care to explore the origins of Cause or to help us understand Dodd.
There is a telling line said to Freddie by Dodds son,as he snoozes outside one of his fathers sessions,pretending to be interested: Hes making it all up as he goes along. Cant you tell? Freddie can,and still wont.
As Anderson closes the film with that question still hanging in the air,the thing is,you know why and why not.