One Universal Truth
Nothing sells a film more than controversy, and The Master had no lack of one, with its parallels drawn toward Scientology with its premise where a cult like leader is in the early stages of establishing his religion based on scientific fantasy of sorts, and the methods used that calls for true faith amongst his believers. Paul Thomas Anderson crafts a film that takes a while to get used to given its thematic focus on the none too pleasant, ranging from violence to the hallucinatory, and it is only the acting prowess of the trio of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joachim Phoenix and Amy Adams that made this tolerable for what it wanted to convey.
Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a soldier back from the Second World War who's finding it hard to adjust back to society, given his violent tendencies and is usually in a floating world of his own, fueled by his own deadly mix and concoction of any liquids he can find to develop into bootleg alcohol. In his drunken stupor one day he stumbles upon the boat full of followers of The Cause, and as a stowaway gets to meet the charismatic Cause leader Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), who decides to take him under his wing, with Freddie's ability to conjure up some of his magic juice a plus to have around the community.
Call it trying to recruit a follower, or finding a friend with whom you can click instantly with, the two begins a topsy turvy relationship built upon mutual trust, and Freddie's occasional bouts of violence toward anyone who challenges Lancaster's authority over his sermons. It's an extreme form of bromance that doesn't sit well with Lancaster's pregnant wife Peggy (Amy Adams), who deem Freddie as an unforeseen destructive force that threatens to derail the good work they have put in developing their brand of teaching and legion of followers. And unknowing to all, Freddie is also that corrupting force tht reveals the hypocrisy amongst the Dodd family, with the recently married Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), daughter of Lancaster, also finding seductively irresistable.
Paul Thomas Anderson's film reportedly had issues with members of Scientology for a crucial scene and line uttered in the film, and undoubtedly the parallels here, such as the beginnings and philosophy shared by its charismatic leader, Processing versus Auditing, would generate interest to come watch the film. The offense also extended toward suggestions that the rich, having enough to put them on top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, seem to want to fulfill something empty inside them, and therefore more susceptible to swindlers and cons who offer that doorway to spiritual nirvana. The narrative involves embarking on an eyewitness journey together with Freddie when he got taken under the wings of the Dodd family and their extended supporters, from ship to land, to the abodes of its rich backers.
What made this film compelling to watch despite its scenes that seem to linger in indulgence, and requiring patience to sit through scores of repetition, are the powerhouse performances, and that's it. It deals with the symbiotic relationship between an alcoholic man suffering from post war trauma and that of a cult leader and his influence and power, which in a way threatens the make up of the Dodd family. It talks about the power of cult and the cult leader, which Philip Seymour Hoffman aces with his sheer gravitas and presence on screen, delivering countless of seductive points even though they sound warped to begin with, and provided a clear contrast when his Lancaster is in private and public. While Freddie may be the more explosive one, Lancaster holds his own hair-drying effect when the need calls for it, with a short fuse threatening to blow each time his authority comes under fire in which he has no proper answer for. These are scenes that allowed Hoffman to fly off the handle, in between keeping his composure especially when needing the tranquility to sell his ideas across.
Freddie becomes the third party between Lancaster and Peggy, the latter who sees her power behind her man waned and undermined, when she experiences being threatened by Freddie's introduction. I actually found this dynamics between Joachim Phoenix and Amy Adams and their characters a lot more interesting in their power struggle. Phoenix seemed to be sleepwalking through his role as the perpetually stoned army discharge, and seem to light up each time he gets to pulverize someone, in between being used as a guinea pig for Lancaster's experiments and teachings. His character's journey is the one the audience undertakes, and being an unpleasant character, makes the journey a little bit unsettling. Amy Adams, while limited in scenes, epitomizes what it means when being under a perceived threat, with one of her best scenes involved engaging the two men one after another for separate purposes.
Production values are high, with effort taken to make this really like the 50s, although like Les Miserables it had its fair share of facial close ups of the actors. The score seemed really muted though, with nothing memorably standing out. The Master is a film that one would either love, or really dislike, because one may have expectations going to this, but the ending will really deflate all those high expectations of something more grandeur. The story is pretty straightforward, often times seemingly being stuck and unable to move along, and we're taken on that same ride and put on the same boat, experiencing and feeling the same level of frustration the protagonist feels. Ultimately it's a plain sailing affair, with only its good performances to thank and shore up what's lacking in strength of story.