P. T. Anderson’s ‘The Master’ is exquisite cinema

by David Dixon

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Courtesy of Ghoulardi Film Company

It appears Paul Thomas Anderson has been hard at work behind- the-scenes since his magnificent Oscar-winning epic “There Will Be Blood” was released nearly five years ago. The prestigious filmmaker has now written and directed a movie already generating controversy because of its subject matter.

“The Master” stars Joaquin Phoenix as 1950s troublemaker Freddie Quell. He is a Navy veteran whose life has gone downhill since World War II. After taking a few odd jobs and wandering to several random locations, Freddie decides to sneak on board a luxury ship so he can try to get a job.

Freddie eventually meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an intelligent man who has created his own religion, “The Cause.” Freddie joins this cult and becomes so close with Lancaster that he starts spending extended periods of time with him and his family.

Even before “The Master” was done filming, people realized that “The Cause” had parallels to the Church of Scientology and Lancaster had similarities to Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard. While there is much more to appreciate about the finished product, it’s obvious the film is an allegory and arguably a critique on this particular religion.

A theme more haunting than Anderson’s reflection on religion is how many military men completely fell apart after World War II, which happens to many after serving in combat. As seen in several flashbacks, Freddie appeared to have his life slightly more figured out before the war. After doing his duty, he became an alcoholic deadbeat who had no idea what his purpose in the universe was.

Phoenix’s portrayal of Freddie further articulates this aspect. In his first performance since the bizarre hoax documentary, “I’m Still Here,” Phoenix is simply fantastic as Freddie; funny one second and terrifyingly dangerous the next, his acting here feels disturbingly genuine.

Hoffman is completely magnetic as Lancaster, a larger-than-life specimen who seems wise, even if his teachings and methods are questionable. Hoffman creates an unconventionally moving bromance with Freddie and their relationship gives what could have been a rather cold and cynical film some actual warmth and emotion.

Though her role is the least pronounced of the three main characters, Amy Adams makes the character of Lancaster’s wife, Peggy Dodd, her own. Adams has us believe she is very loyal to her husband and is also not afraid to speak her mind to either Lancaster or Freddie.

Anderson films his interpretation of a retro U.S. in beautiful style with plenty of unforgetably long takes as well as effective close-ups of his performers. His writing and directing continue to be stellar. It is rarely predictable and completely original.

There are many other worthy aspects regarding why “The Master” works so well, from Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood’s insightful score, to Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s grand cinematography.

“The Master” is an incredible achievement with cohesive elements that add up to a sad and brave story that should be experienced on a big screen.

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