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Movie Review: The Master
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The Master Film PosterThe Master
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern
The Weinstein Company
Rated R | 137 Minutes
Release Date: September 14th, 2012

“I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher… but above all I am a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.”

Director Paul Thomas Anderson‘s The Master is a post-World War II drama that focuses on the relationship between a charismatic intellectual known as ‘Master’ (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Freddie Quell, a drifter who becomes his right-hand man (Joaquin Phoenix).

Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) is the leader of a faith-based organization known as The Cause, which has drawn numerous comparisons to Scientology as a cult-like movement. With his 1950 book, Dianetics, Scientology guru L. Ron Hubbard introduced the idea of ‘auditing,’ a process that allows one to go back in time and recover pre-birth, in utero memories, and disarm harmful ones while improving their mental faculties in the present.

Similarly, Dodd uses a form of ‘processing’ to ascertain a person’s true nature by asking them a series of questions and calling on them to remember details about past lives and pre-birth memories. After Freddie, a Navy veteran with a nervous condition and a drinking problem, stows away on Dodd’s yacht, the Master decides to take him in under his wing and make Freddie his protégé and guinea pig for ‘processing’ experiments.

Dodd demands that Freddie answers his questions honestly and without blinking. If Freddie blinks, Dodd will start the entire process over again, starting back at the first question. After numerous failed attempts, Dodd breaks through to Freddie, his eyes wide open, shaking in their sockets, tears rolling down his cheeks. Freddie shares himself with Dodd, who uses the findings to inform his continued research into the science behind The Cause. This scene is so intense, so gripping, that I found myself unable to blink – my eyes were locked onto the screen, sitting straight up in my chair, shaking my head ever so slightly in disbelief.

While it’s fairly clear that Lancaster Dodd is inspired by Hubbard, The Master is not a biography of the man who founded Scientology, nor is it a film that focuses on the practices and beliefs of a cult – it’s more about the relationship between a charming, intellectual prophet and a man who is hopelessly lost in life. Freddie is a sex addict and hooch-brewin’ alcoholic who has wandered from the proper path in life, and represents the emptiness that exists in all of us. He is a reminder of how easy it is, when you’ve hit rock bottom, to be deceived by those who claim to have all the answers.

The Master: Phillip Seymour Hoffman

Amy Adams co-stars as Dodd’s wife, Sue, who supports her husband and The Cause feverishly. Her loyalty is unwavering, reprimanding Freddie for his inability to get sober she suggests he is beyond help. “This is something you do for a billion years, or not at all.” She demands complete and total commitment to The Cause, forgoing the vices and ‘animal tendencies’ that interfere with Freddie’s spiritual enlightenment.

The Master is a thought-provoking, powerful film that burns with brilliant intensity. It is another compelling addition to Paul Thomas Anderson’s already stunning body of work, which includes films such as There Will Be Blood, Punch-Drunk Love, Magnolia, and Boogie Nights.

Like those films, The Master allows its characters to propel the plot forward, instead of dragging them behind it. Hoffman, Phoenix, and Adams will earn Oscar nominations for their performances here, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Anderson takes home another Original Screenplay Oscar or who knows, maybe even Best Picture and Best Director.

Anderson wrote the script for The Master by combining unused bits from early drafts of There Will Be Blood, with elements from the lives of John Steinbeck and L. Ron Hubbard. He also used stories Jason Robards shared with him on the set of Magnolia to inform Freddie Quell’s drinking days in the Navy and flesh out the character.

It’s difficult to say I enjoyed watching The Master. It is an exhausting, bewildering cinematic experience with riveting performances as well as beautiful compositions and flawless cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. Watching Hoffman and Phoenix, and getting caught in the synaptic crossfire of their conversations and arguments, is truly something to behold.

The Master is destined to be an existential American classic, a film that evaluates faith and the inherent doubt, denial, manipulation, and disappointment that comes with it.

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