Joaquin Phoenix returns better than ever in “The Master”
Published: Monday, September 17, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 01:09
Acclaimed writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson has not released a film since the 2007’s “There Will Be Blood,” an atmospheric powder keg of a movie, which featured a remarkable performance from Daniel Day Lewis.
After almost five years, Anderson’s follow-up “The Master” has finally been released, and fans with undoubtedly high expectations will finally be able to see what he’s come up with this time.
“The Master” stars Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a psychologically damaged former World War II soldier with an unhealthy obsession with sex. He is also an alcoholic who experiences blackouts and occasional fits of rage which makes it nearly impossible for him to hold down a job.
Gaunt, skinny and disheveled, Phoenix’s portrayal of Quell is mesmerizing. Everything from his awkward arm movements, strange speech patterns and facial tics make you forget that he’s even acting at all.
From the early scene where Quell dry-humps a woman his war buddies have crafted out of sand, first jokingly and then with disturbing intensity, it is clear that this man has serious issues.
After losing a few jobs due to his outbursts, and having no luck with traditional psychologists, he finds his way to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) a self-proclaimed “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher,” who has started a cult-like movement called “The Cause” which promises to help people by connecting them to their past lives.
It is no secret that Anderson has based Hoffman’s character on L. Ron Hubbard, the creator of Scientology. Dodd’s book “The Cause” is very similar to Hubbard’s 1950 self-help book “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health,” which began the religion that has dominated the tabloids as of late.
Hoffman’s performance is fantastic, and it is easy to see why someone in Quell’s position would get wrapped up in his stories of past lives and his system of “processing” which hypnotizes people by bombarding them with short-answer questions.
The scenes in which Dodd’s writing or practices are brought into question are some of the most enjoyable in the film. Dodd explodes with anger at even the slightest hint of criticism, which shows that maybe he’s not as well put-together as his followers seem to believe.
Dodd’s relationship with Quell goes beyond father-son or even mentor-protégé. As the film goes on it almost seems like a love story. Quell is in constant search of someone to look up to who can give his life meaning whether he believes in it or not. Dodd enjoys his ability to control Quell, and feels like if he can cure Quell’s anger and frustration, he may be able to better control his own.
Unfortunately at close to 2 ½ hours long, the film seems drawn out in the third act, as Quell flip-flops back and forth between belief and skepticism. The uncertainty and ambiguity of the characters is almost certainly intentional, but it feels disappointing in the end when it’s not entirely clear what has changed.
“The Master” may not be the modern masterpiece that “There Will Be Blood” is, but it manages to be a fascinating character study between a broken man who wants to believe, and a confident man who claims to have all the answers. The film doesn’t answer many of the questions that it brings up, leaving us wanting more much like Quell wanted more from “The Cause.” This may be the point, but it’s ultimately somewhat unsatisfying.