ESPITE speculation its US release was moved up a month to exploit the headlines surrounding the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes divorce, The Master isn’t the Scientology expose it was rumoured to be.
Instead, it’s a sharply written, unforgettably directed character study with brilliant performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams – far more intimate but no less intense than director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar-winning last film, There Will Be Blood.
The Master will prominently figure in this year’s Oscar race in a variety of categories, including Best Picture.
To be sure, there’s much more than a passing resemblance between Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and his fictional film counterpart, Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic leader of a self-help cult called The Cause.
In the early 1950s, Dodd and his disciples ‘‘audit’’ recruits in a hypnotic-like state to uncover past traumas as an alternative to psychotherapy, much like in Scientology and its predecessor, Dianetics.
Dodd is a self-styled ‘‘writer, doctor, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher’’ whose core tenets include reincarnation, time travel and helping
Amy Adams and Joaquin Phoenix are brilliant in free his followers from their emotions. While sceptics consider Dodd – or, as his followers call him, The Master – a charlatan who preys on the wealthy and the gullible, he isn’t the film’s primary focus. That would be Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a troubled follower of The Master who becomes a surrogate son and something of a test case for Dodd’s theories about spiritual rebirth.
A navy man (like Dodd) most comfortable at sea, Freddie drifts through a drunken haze after World War II service before he winds up as a stowaway on a yacht on which Dodd is holding his daughter’s wedding en route from San Francisco to New York via the Panama Canal.
As Hoffman plays him, Dodd is a genial, generous and sincere fraud who takes on Freddie as a disciple despite the reservations of his pregnant wife, Peggy (Adams), and son-in-law (Rami Malek).
Despite his issues, Freddie has enough street smarts to realise his benefactor is a phony peddling pseudo-religious twaddle about man’s ‘‘inherent state of perfection’’. At the same time, The Master is forced to acknowledge Freddie, a loose cannon always ready to go off, poses a threat to his movement.
The real fireworks, however, are the extraordinary performances of the film’s three leads. Phoenix does his best work ever as Freddie, twisting his face and body into a grimace of pain, suffering, anger and lewd thoughts.
Hoffman’s Dodd provides a Zen-like counterpoint, while Adams beautifully demonstrates the will of steel behind Mrs Dodd’s exterior empathy.
Some may be disappointed that Anderson does not more directly confront the many controversies and scandals involving Scientology and its practices. Others may wish for a less enigmatic resolution of the widening gulf between The Master and Freddie.