When writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (BOOGIE NIGHTS, MAGNOLIA, THERE WILL BE BLOOD, all-around bad ass filmmaker) announced that his next project was going to be about a faith-based organization that is similar to the Church of Scientology (translation: the project IS about the Church of Scientology, but God forbid admitting such a thing lest you incur the wrath of the church and its lawyers), Christmas and my last 37 birthdays were bundled up in one package of ecstatic joy. One of my favorite all-time filmmakers and one of the top 5 best working in the industry was going to deal with a topic that has turned into a near obsession for me. Admittedly, there was a gnawing feeling in my stomach that no studio would release such a film knowing how litigious the church is and how much influence it wields over the industry. Fortunately, any fears that this project would be shelved were dispelled and now THE MASTER has finally arrived in theaters and I have finally seen it.

THE MASTER is about a World War II veteran, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic who drifts from job to job after the war. One night, while intoxicated, he stumbles upon a docked yacht, where a party is being held. Freddie sneaks onto the yacht and discovers the party is being hosted by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a cult leader of a movement called The Cause. Dodd allows Freddie to stay and Freddie eventually becomes indoctrinated into the cult. During the course of the film, we are introduced to the tenets of the movement and how it operates. The film also stars Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd, the wife of Lancaster Dodd.

Let’s get one thing straight. Despite not making any explicit reference to the Church of Scientology, THE MASTER is, without a doubt, about the Church of Scientology. If it wasn’t, Paul Thomas Anderson would not have screened the film for Tom Cruise before its release. For one, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character physically resembles Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard founded Scientology in 1950, which is the same year The Cause is founded or is at least in its early stages in the film. L. Ron Hubbard wrote a book called Dianetics, which focuses on addressing a person’s negative past memories that affect that person’s current life. Lancaster Dodd wrote a book called The Cause, which focuses on the same thing. L. Ron Hubbard developed a personality test that included a series of questions such as “are you impulsive in your behavior,” “are your actions considered unpredictable by other people,” etc. Lancaster Dodd has an informal processing technique that asks very similar or exact questions. L. Ron Hubbard recorded his counseling sessions and lectures so that his students could listen to them during their training. Lancaster Dodd also records his counseling sessions and lectures for training purposes. Scientology believes that you can travel back in time through your memories. Lancaster Dodd also advocates that, through his processing, you can travel back in time through your memories. There are many other similarities between the church and Lancaster Dodd that clearly shows the film is intended to be about L. Ron Hubbard and the founding of Scientology.

Every few years a film will come out that serves as a defining point in an actor’s career. Paul Thomas Anderson did that for Daniel Day-Lewis with his last film, THERE WILL BE BLOOD. He does that again here for Joaquin Phoenix. Over the years, Phoenix has managed to emerge from his late brother’s shadow and become one of this generation’s best actors. Like Daniel Day-Lewis, Phoenix completely invests himself into his roles and gives his audiences complex and nuanced performances. Therefore, actors like Day-Lewis and Phoenix fully blossom and showcase their talents in the hands of such directors like Paul Thomas Anderson. PT Anderson understands how to work with these actors and provide them with the material and environment to draw the absolute best from them. In THE MASTER, Joaquin Phoenix gives us a career-defining and magnetic performance that will surely nab him an Academy Award next year. Freddie Quell is not a sympathetic character. He’s an alcoholic, a drifter, and a man prone to bursts of violent anger. At times you do feel sorry for the fact that this loner is unable to cope with general society, but any sympathy you feel for him is quickly dispelled when he decides to beat the shit out of someone for merely saying something that Freddie disagrees with. Phoenix wisely refrains from making his character too showy, which would easily have been the case in the hands of a weaker talent. He gives us just enough to convey the turmoil going on inside of him and he does that not just through his gestures and lines, but also through his physical appearance (slicked back hair, stooped shoulders, gaunt body, and poor posture).

At the same time, I felt that the character of Freddie Quells was underwritten. Joaquin Phoenix undoubtedly inhabits the character written for him and makes it his own, but Paul Thomas Anderson fails to meet his challenge of fully fleshing out why Freddie Quells is the man that he is. Freddie briefly explains a little of his past to Lancaster Dodd, but overall we’re still left wondering why Freddie is a loner, an alcoholic, and prone to violent outbursts. Especially given the cult’s technique of making it followers travel back in time to address painful moments from their past, I expected to see a fuller exploration of Freddie’s past. That never happens.

The other amazing performance in THE MASTER is from The Master himself, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who further solidifies his stature as one of Hollywood’s most formidable actors. I was recently discussing with a friend which performance of the actor’s is better: CAPOTE (for which he won an Academy Award) or THE MASTER. Its difficult to make a definitive choice, but I think his performance in CAPOTE slightly (very very slightly) edges out his performance here. Nevertheless, Hoffman is astonishing here and gives us yet another performance that we have never seen him do before. Lancaster Dodd is seductive, extremely self-confident, charismatic and intimidating. Dodd is a pseudo-psychologist and a swindler on the scale of the hucksters who traveled from town to town selling bullshit science during the early days of the United States. We are mesmerized by his efforts to build his organization and I actually found myself rooting for the guy to succeed in his endeavor! The dynamic between Dodd and Freddie is integral to THE MASTER and watching the two actors interact is extraordinary, especially when you see the contrast between Phoenix’s unrefined, rough-hewn edginess and Hoffman’s streamlined and clean composure. There is a line in the movie that is sure to become as memorable as Day-Lewis’ “milkshake” line. There is a scene in which Hoffman confronts a cynic and after spewing a litany of insults at the man, Hoffman finally ends it by calling him “Pig Fuck.”

However, I was even more disappointed that we do not learn more about Lancaster Dodd’s past. Apparently, earlier versions of the screenplay contained more information about Dodd’s past and the operations of his cult. I wish we knew more about what he did before the founding of The Cause, how he came up with the idea for The Cause, and more “insider” information about how the organization is funded and what is inside Dodd’s head. Earlier drafts of the screenplay suggest that Dodd’s past is very similar to L. Ron Hubbard’s and I wonder if Paul Thomas Anderson decided to excise much of his character’s past in order for his film to pass muster with the Church of Scientology. Who knows, but regardless, I wanted to learn more about Dodd, especially given how intriguing the character is.

THE MASTER is not a boring film to watch, especially if you, like me, are endlessly fascinated by Scientology. However, this film meanders and overstays its welcome toward the end. There is a seemingly endless procession of scenes where Dodd oversees Freddie’s indoctrination into The Cause. Freddie undergoes a battery of psychological tests that are basically Scientology’s “auditing” procedures. As interesting as it is to watch Freddie’s slow brainwashing, I would have preferred that Anderson explored other aspects of The Cause, such as how it is being funded and how Dodd deals with the cynics. The running time of THE MASTER is nowhere near as long as THERE WILL BE BLOOD, which clocked in at almost three hours. But THERE WILL BE BLOOD never felt long, which was propelled by the hypnotizing performance given by Daniel Day-Lewis. Furthermore, the stakes involved in THERE WILL BE BLOOD were much higher and, consequently, the plot offered more dramatic tension. In THE MASTER, the stakes are not high enough. The only tension in this film is whether or not Freddie will become indoctrinated and stay with The Cause and whether he can manage to overcome his personal problems. In the end, Freddie can always leave the organization without any dire consequences. At the same time, I am reluctant to critique THE MASTER because it is one of those few films that should be seen more than once in order to fully grasp all of the nuances and details in the film. After watching the film, I knew I had just seen greatness at work, but I was unable to find the proper phrase to convey Paul Thomas Anderson’s accomplishment.

In addition to Phoenix and Hoffman’s performances, THE MASTER is also noteworthy in giving us one of the most gorgeously shot films in years. It is without exaggeration when I say that every single frame in this movie is exquisite. Every frame is given such determined, attentive care, and esteem by Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. Add to this the production design by Jack Fisk and David Crank, the set decoration by Amy Wells, and the costume designs by Mark Bridges, and we are given a 1950’s America that is created with painstaking and immersive detail. Supplementing the look of the film is Jonny Greenwood’s (of Radiohead) lush musical score that references 1950’s jazz motifs and some of the more experimental electronic music done in the same time period. By the way, Anderson shot THE MASTER in the near-obsolete 65-mm format in order to achieve the epic look he was vying for and which Alfred Hitchcock used in VERTIGO and NORTH BY NORTHWEST. If you have the opportunity to view this film in a theater that will screen it in 65-mm rather than the standard 35-mm, DO IT!

THE MASTER is not for everyone. Paul Thomas Anderson has never been for everyone. Audiences like their plots to be directly explained to them. They don’t like ambiguity or to be asked to fill in any holes. Anderson doesn’t subscribe to this. He is not afraid of being vague and for that, I commend him. THE MASTER is a resonating achievement that invites us to delve into the mindframe of charismatic leaders like L. Ron Hubbard, the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, and the recent Coptic priest Zakaria Botros Henein, whose groupies made the Innocence of Muslims video. THE MASTER is not a perfect film and it may not be Paul Thomas Anderson’s best achievement, but it is a fine addition to his filmography that demands to be seen.

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