DIRECTOR: Paul Thomas Anderson
STARRING : Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
To see The Master, as some have, purely as a statement about Scientology and occultism would be to lose a great deal of what makes it a truly compelling character drama. Whilst these elements are clearly apparent in the conditioning through ‘processing’ of naval veteran slouch Freddie they are not the main focus. The Master hinges on its central relationship between Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, who admittedly does ooze Scientology founder Ron. L Hubbard. The dynamics of this relationship reflect the themes of the film: alienation, desperation and ultimately dependence.
Aside from containing some of the year’s best performances (Amy Adams sharply echoing One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest‘s malevolent Nurse Ratched) and a wealth of beautifully shot cinematography the film ultimately shows two very different men dealing with life in a post WWII America. Phoenix’s Freddie is a hopeless alcoholic moving from job to job, Hoffman’s Dodd a lively and quite charming founder of a new school of though named The Cause. It is this relationship that gives the film its best moments as a desperate Freddie and the charismatic Dodd soon build up an almost symbiotic dependence towards one another, even when Freddie starts to see the cult’s deception he vehemently defends its leader against criticism.
Dodd sees the anarchical Freddie as a symbol of both freedom and suffering and takes it upon himself to raise him as his protégée. This is where the film’s most revelatory element blossoms; In developing Freddie as a helpless and alienated figure whilst showing the cult’s leader in a quite complimentary light Paul Thomas Anderson successfully creates a seemingly impenetrable and secluded situation where turning to a cult such as Scientology or any other seems plausible. It is Phoenix’s subtle performance which outs Freddie as a violent drunk but ultimately a hero deserving of our sympathy, much as it is Hoffman’s charismatic turn that highlights the manipulative yet sincere nature of Dodd. This generously objective representation of forms of extreme beliefs represented by ‘The Cause’ is where the films master stroke lies.