Every movement has its founder, its days of working out its sacred text and its first fanatical acolyte. And it doesn’t matter if the founder is Mary Baker Eddy, Joseph Smith, Ayn Rand or Mohammad, the details are going to look messy.
That’s the fertile ground Paul Thomas Anderson tills in “The Master,” a fascinating film presented as a fictionalized version of the early days of Scientology.
Anderson (“There Will Be Blood”) vividly recreates the psychological climate of post-World War II nuclear-armed America and injects a charismatic charlatan into it. And set opposite the mesmerizing, arrogant yet oddly sympathetic Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role is the bent, malnourished figure of Joaquin Phoenix, screen acting’s most tortured soul, given a comeback of startling dimensions.
Phoenix is Freddy Quill, a Navy vet of vulgar impulses and violent mood swings. He’s sexually voracious and unabashedly crude. Freddy doesn’t just drink. He used to drink the alcohol fuel from the torpedoes on his destroyer, so no libation that he hasn’t concocted out of paint thinner and pills does the trick for him.
He literally staggers into the orbit of The Master, a writer and self-described intellectual who has acquired a small, well-heeled following which he teaches to “process” others as he has processed them. Anderson presents a sober and fair-minded take on this procedure, which entails a hypnotic questioning and breaking down of the subject, supposedly revealing “trillions” of years of past lives that shape who we are.
“Do your past failures bother you?” the Master wants to know. “Is your life a struggle? Have you ever had sex with anyone in your family?”
The Master cares, calls Freddy a “silly animal” for his base urges and treats him as his ultimate “guinea pig.” Freddy, the most deeply disturbed person ever drawn into The Master’s orbit, will be the test case for the treatments proscribed in “The Cause” and the follow-up books the Master has in mind. He is going to upend a sick world and heal it, starting with Freddy.
Strip away any thought of “processing” as “auditing” and “The Cause” as “Dianetics” and you’re left with the portrait of a man whose life is a wreck and who finds some thread of hope in the attentions of this Kool-smoking guru.
Phoenix finds all sorts of new corners of disturbed to play in a performance that is not pretty on any level. The actor has never been more haggard, and the loss of weight makes him more menacing, a stooped Lee Harvey Oswald figure, a fanatic who barely contains his life-long rage and a man without a deep thought in his head.
Hoffman, all clipped sentences and self-control, makes this Master intellectually adroit, fearsome when he is challenged, sincere and mentoring when he sees the challenge Freddy represents.
“We are on a journey that risks the dark,” he intones in his lectures. He modestly offers his latest book as “a gift to homo sapiens.”
Amy Adams gives a Lady Macbeth edge to the Master’s latest wife, an unnaturally calm harridan who circles the wagons for The Cause whenever she sees it not being taken seriously.
“The only way to defend ourselves is to attack.”
“The Master” is captivating on a simple performance level. The story, an overlong, rambling personal journey that takes Freddy from the beaches of the South Pacific into his past and stumbling — perhaps healthier/perhaps lost –into his future, does little to break the spell the players cast.
Anderson cunningly lets the viewer add the “sinister” here. We can ponder a group that sees value in collecting and guarding the secrets of its members, that seeks out celebrities, the passion for litigation as a means of battling those who question it.
Hoffman, as The Master, may be full of it. But Anderson doesn’t have his film question The Master’s character or motives. He gives hints, suggests the costs as well as the benefits of this sort of imitation psychiatry.
The questioning, the worries over how such a cultish group might use its members, its influence and its clout for nefarious purposes? That’s up to us.
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Joaquin Phoenix
Credits: Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. A Weinstein Co. release.
Running time: 2:17