Even though it’s early for Oscar contenders, The Master appears likely to be nominated in multiple categories.
In this elegant, dispassionately honest and often difficult to watch film, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) brilliantly portrays an evolving cult and the troubled drifter who becomes its leader’s right-hand man.
The movement, vaguely identified as The Cause, is led by one of those classically magnetic figures, Lancaster Dodd. The question for those who care to examine Dodd’s talks and writings is: Is he savior or charlatan?
Dodd mixes science, psychology, philosophy and history into a kind of secular religion. The Cause may as well be called The Way or The Answer or The Secret. He presents himself as a loving wise man who has discovered something he wishes to magnanimously share with his disciples.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Dodd, a flawed leader whose geniality can break into inarticulate rage should he be confronted by a clear-eyed skeptic.
Hoffman, an Oscar winner for 2005’s Capote, slips comfortably into the deceptively calm Dodd’s chameleon skin. The opportunity to leap from zero to 140 mph must be something actors can’t resist. Hoffman takes full advantage of his dynamic role, rocketing Dodd’s startling mood swings out of the park.
Dodd’s hooks for potential followers include his renaming and recasting of things already known but maybe not very well known by everyone. He practices hypnotism, for instance, but renames it “processing.”
Freddie, a Navy veteran from World War II, drops into Dodd’s circle following his inability to lead any kind of normal post-war existence. Flagged by the Navy for his aberrant behavior before his discharge, Freddie’s troubles are not, as the Navy suspects, brought on by the terrors of military conflict.
Mentally ill and alcoholic, the previously adrift Freddie easily enters Dodd’s inner circle. The Master, as Dodd’s followers address him, sees a fellow traveler in Freddie. The two do have fundamental traits in common. For one, they’re both mixologists. Freddie mixes drinks containing substances not safe for human consumption. Dodd blends a hodgepodge of disciplines and beliefs into The Cause.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the troubled Freddie tops his previous portrayals of similarly tortured characters in Walk the Line and Quills. Gaunt and hunched, powerless against the lure of alcohol and the even more dangerous concoctions he creates, Freddie seems terminally damaged.
But if Dodd can save a wretch like Freddie, doing do so will prove how great he is. Dodd reaches for the drowning Freddie’s hand, probably more from arrogance than magnanimity. The numerous, intimate scenes that Hoffman and Phoenix share form some of the best work of the actors’ careers.
The Master’s A-list performances continue with three-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams as the power behind Dodd’s movement. As the focused and uncompromising Master’s wife, Peggy, Adams projects defining influence and control.
The naturalism and hyperrealism in The Master’s performances are also seen in the film’s classic look. Shot in the rarely used, detail-rich 65-millimeter format through Panavision cameras, The Master resembles a luxurious epic of the 1950s or ’60s.
Freddie’s journey in The Master is a disturbing portrait of madness, but the film’s principal-character performances, a story that unfolds like a well-wrought novel and transporting authenticity and detail qualify it as the first of this year’s film masterpieces.
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