Other voices

Hoffman and Phoenix mes­mer­iz­ing in tale of a mega­lo­ma­ni­a­cal false prophet

Winnipeg Free Press - Section D - - FRONT PAGE -

IT’S doubt­ful writer-di­rec­tor Paul Thomas An­der­son was look­ing to raise the liti­gious ire of the Church of Scien­tol­ogy with this story promi­nently fea­tur­ing a bo­gus prophet clearly mod­elled af­ter Scien­tol­ogy founder L. Ron Hub­bard.

As The Mas­ter un­reels, it is clear An­der­son is not ter­ri­bly in­ter­ested in the specifics of that re­li­gion as he is in the loaded dy­namic be­tween the leader and the fol­lower, the would-be prophet and the would-be apos­tle.

In the lat­ter ca­pac­ity, Fred­die Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is pre­sented in the film’s open­ing scenes as a pro­foundly lost soul. At the end of the Sec­ond World War, the dam­aged Fred­die leaves the navy and drifts through a root­less civil­ian life. He doesn’t stick with any­thing for too long, stymied by his nat­u­ral ten­dency to anti-so­cial be­hav­iour and a pen­chant for brew­ing his own toxic moon­shine from what­ever flu­ids are close to hand.

On the lam from a mis­ad­ven­ture, Fred­die stows away on a pass­ing ship bound for New York City un­der the be­nign com­mand of Lan­caster Dodd (Philip Sey­mour Hoffman), ev­i­dently some kind of al­pha-aca­demic who in­tro­duces him­self as a “writer, a doc­tor, a nu­clear physi­cist and a the­o­ret­i­cal philoso­pher” with a ripe sense of self rem­i­nis­cent of Wile E. Coy­ote’s call­ing card: “Ge­nius.” “But above all, I am a man.” The two men bond over Fred­die’s home brew, but their re­la­tion­ship quickly trans­mo­gri­fies as Dodd em­ploys his im­pres­sive hyp­notic wiles to se­duce Fred­die to “The Cause,” Dodd’s all-in­clu­sive name for his pseudo-sci­en­tific cult.

The film’s ten­sion is not in its plot, which me­an­ders, but in these char­ac­ters. Dodd’s credo, which never fails to flat­ter the rich ma­trons he courts as pa­trons, is that hu­mans are not part of the an­i­mal world, but are spir­i­tual be­ings. But Dodd him­self can’t help but la­bel Fred­die a “silly, silly an­i­mal” when his trou­ble­some con­vert re­verts to self-grat­i­fy­ing be­hav­iours (which he does fre­quently).

For his part, Fred­die dis­plays loy­alty for Dodd, the one man who seems to con­sider him a wor­thy hu­man be­ing. But Fred­die’s loy­alty is an­i­mal loy­alty; he phys­i­cally lashes out at any skep­tic who pro­fesses doubt for The Cause, even if Fred­die is him­self too dis­turbed or too thick to grasp its tenets.

It must be said Phoenix oc­cu­pies this char­ac­ter with more con­vic­tion than he did the char­ac­ter of Joaquin Phoenix in the pseudo-doc I’m Still Here. The ac­tor ei­ther starved or fret­ted his body to some­thing scrawny and feral. Note how he holds his arms pulled back, sug­gest­ing a starved, flight­less bird. It’s a great per­for­mance.

Hoffman matches him with act­ing that is as stud­ied and con­trolled as Phoenix’s is in­tu­itive and raw. The per­for­mances yield a beau­ti­ful har­mony, par­tic­u­larly in a scene in which the two men find them­selves in ad­join­ing jail cells, act­ing ac­cord­ing to their op­po­site in­stincts.

Also no­table is Amy Adams, once a trilling Dis­ney princess in En­chanted, show­ing the steel be­hind those baby blues as Dodd’s fiercely cal­cu­lat­ing wife.

As in An­der­son’s film There Will Be Blood, there is some strange, enig­matic con­tent in this movie, es­pe­cially in the film’s fi­nal en­counter be­tween Dodd and Fred­die. Take it how­ever you like, it’s the hap­pi­est end­ing you’ll ever get in a Paul Thomas An­der­son movie. Se­lected ex­cerpts from re­views of The Mas­ter.

is a work that de­mands at­ten­tion, and it sat­is­fies on many lev­els — it is a film of in­tel­li­gence and am­bi­tion, teem­ing with ideas, as­sem­bled with fear­less artistry.

— Steven Rea, Likely Os­car nom­i­nees both, Phoenix and Hoffman com­mand the screen so com­pletely it’s hard to imag­ine any­one pulling it away from them.

— Peter How­ell, Warts, wan­der­ings, re­it­er­a­tions and all, this is a film des­tined to be pro­cessed in many dif­fer­ent ways. And hal­lelu­jah to that.

— Michael Phillips,

is fab­u­lously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.

— Roger Ebert, The first time watch­ing is like breez­ing past a piece of beau­ti­ful art, be­ing stunned, un­cer­tain and in­trigued by it. The sec­ond time can only en­cour­age more in­ter­pre­ta­tion, re­flec­tion and un­der­stand­ing.

— Randy My­ers, Writer-di­rec­tor Paul Thomas An­der­son’s

is a dis­turb­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in ways that mat­ter.

— Peter Rainer, I be­lieve in the church of Paul Thomas An­der­son. Fierce and fe­ro­ciously funny, is a great movie, the best of the year so far, and a new Amer­i­can clas­sic.

— Peter Travers, Quite pos­si­bly the movie of the year, or the decade.

— Glenn Kenny, MSN Movies



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