THE MASTER. Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Amy Adams. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong sexual references, coarse language and nudity). 137 min.
This is a US film about a veteran, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who is traumatised by his Navy service in World War II, and is being assessed for psychiatric problems. The film is a disturbing, but fascinating, exposé of cult-fanaticism, and has been linked to the current controversy that surrounds Scientology.
Freddie is a drifting psychopath, whose behaviour is fuelled by alcohol, and he has only limited control of his baser instincts. Looking for solace, he discovers a religious movement called, “The Cause”, led by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), The Master, and he commits himself deeply to him.
Freddie stows away on a vessel sailing out of San Francisco Bay, and Lancaster is the Commander of the ship. Freddie becomes Lancaster’s right-hand man, and their relationship emerges as the centre piece of the film. For their roles, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman shared the best acting award at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, and the film won the prize for best direction at the same Festival.
In its attention to close detail and the impact of its imagery, the film resembles closely “There Will Be Blood” (2007), which was also directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Like “There Will Be Blood”, the atmosphere created in this film is dark and foreboding, and represents brilliantly the power struggles which take place between Lancaster and Freddie. They are attracted to each other, and Lancaster’s intimate questions to Freddie such as: “Have you ever had intercourse with someone inside your family” are as unsettling, as they are revealing. Such questions are part of an “informal processing” technique that Lancaster conducts to explore his followers’ past memories in hypnotic trance. Amy Adams plays Lancaster’s wife, Peggie, who tries to prevent the threat she sees in Freddie to her and “The Cause”.
This is an extraordinary film, beautifully shot, edited, and patterned. The film is much more than an exposé of a religious cult and more than the confrontation between two disturbed people, who need each other. Freddie draws energy from Lancaster, but Lancaster’s messianic delusion feeds on Freddie’s pathology. The acting of both Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman is exceptional. Phoenix goes over the top in manifesting the horrors of a psyche out of control, and Hoffman paints an extraordinary portrait of a charismatic, exhibitionistic leader who, knowingly or unknowingly, dupes his worshippers into trusting and believing in his teachings.
Lancaster sees Freddie as a man, who has to be saved, and he needs Freddie’s salvation as proof of his teachings to both himself and his followers. Freddie wants redemption, but the film is really about two people, who create their own hell, and Freddie and Lancaster both mirror each other’s disturbances. The struggles between the two of them come to a climax when Freddie can no longer endure Lancaster’s lies.
The film powerfully tells us that vulnerable people are susceptible to being trapped by irrational belief systems. Provocatively, also, it tells us that some people intentionally engage in illusions, but there are aspects of falsehoods that can create some good. Freddie gains the strength, for instance, to leave Lancaster. The film is critical about how religious belief systems can be manipulated, but even more disturbing is the question the movie raises at its end: we believe in order to save ourselves, but how can we cope with what happens when what we believe in turns out to be an untruth?
This is a brilliantly crafted, complex, and thought-provoking movie which raises deep and probing questions about the efforts of some people to try to find comfort and spiritual meaning in their lives. If one can endure its enigmas, and weather the storm of its complexity, this quality film is well worth seeing. It is beautifully acted and directed, and explosively tense in what always seems to be on the verge of happening.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out November 8, 2012.