Title: The Master
Wow, How Did Paul Anderson Find Time To Make This Along With All Those Resident Evil Movies? Haw Haw. Yeah, that whole "Paul W.S. Anderson/Paul Thomas Anderson" joke wasn't funny the first time I heard it. In 2002.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Four Xenus out of five.
Brief Plot Synopsis: Aimless, troubled WWII vet finds a home of sorts among the members of a new spiritual movement and their charismatic leader.
So...It's About Scientology? There are distinct -- and obvious -- parallels between "The Cause" and its founder, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the CoS, and L. Ron Hubbard. The Cause provides a framework for Dodd's charisma, and possible salvation for the main character, but to say The Master is "about Scientology" is like saying Punch-Drunk Love was about frequent flyer miles.
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: The end of World War II has come at a good time for Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who's already come perilously close to drinking himself out of the military. He spends some time in a VA hospital, then at various odd jobs which all end badly thanks to his erratic behavior and boozing. He ends up stowing away aboard the yacht of Lancaster Dodd, founder of a new movement known as The Cause. Dodd sees something in Freddie and takes him as his protege - to the consternation of his wife Peggy (Amy Adams). For a time, Freddie seems to have found a place to heal, but his self-destructive nature and nagging questions about Dodd and his followers threaten to unravel everything.
"Critical" Analysis: You gotta serve somebody, as Bob Dylan once said, and from the first time we see Freddie Quell, it's apparent he desperately needs an authority figure. The Navy fills this position for a time, even as he secretly distills liquor in the ship's torpedoes, but once he's released into the world, Freddie proves unable to control himself and drifts from semi-respectable labor (department store photographer) to just plain labor (migrant farm worker). It's when he encounters Dodd that something approaching focus enters his life.
Dodd's attraction to Freddie is more complicated. In this troubled young man he sees something of the freedom he, the spiritual leader to thousands, sorely lacks. So Dodd encourages Freddie to join his close-knit group of followers, extending to him the teachings of the Cause while also partaking of Freddie's potent moonshine. Things are hunky dory, for a time.
Just to get it out of the way, the lead performances in The Master are, to a one, fucking fantastic. We expected as much from Hoffman, who is as close to a muse as Anderson has (he's appeared in five of the director's six films). His Dodd is relaxed and smoothly assured, until his expertise and authority are questioned that is. Adams, for her part, did something I thought impossible: she made me like her. I mean, Peggy is a manipulative, uber-controlling, truel believer (the CoS comparisons go off the rails a bit here, as LRH's wife was never thought to have had much say in the Church's policies), but the role is *so* much more interesting than anything we've seen from her before.
And then there's Phoenix. Admittedly, I blew off his faux "rap career" thing from a few years ago and have paid little attention to him since 2005's Walk the Line. I have no idea what Anderson did to draw out what I saw on screen, but Freddie is a feral, haunted, and strangely sympathetic character, one mostly identifiable by his barely restrained id (one hallucinatory sequence strips the females in the scene of all their clothes).
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Perhaps one of the more aggravating aspects of the film is what doesn't get looked at more closely: Did the war fuck Freddie up? Or was he always this way? The Master is also one of the only modern movies I've seen that even touches on the subject of post-WWII malaise, but it's tantalizingly brief.
As with most of all Anderson's films, we're treated to several unintentionally(?) hilarious moments: Freddie passing a "do you want to fuck?" note to a fellow student while a recording plays of Dodd reminding them they aren't animals; or his impromptu theft of Dodd's motorcycle. These are as much a hallmark of Anderson's films as his camerawork, his mentally troubled main characters, his adroit use of musical cues (Johnny Greenwood's score is excellent, and the song selection is spot on), and the elemental futility of existence. It ain't exactly uplifting, and The Master will frustrate some with it's almost deliberate avoidance of resolution.
If that's the case, I hope you can hold out for the last Twilight movie.