The Master
dir-scr Paul Thomas Anderson
prd Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar
with Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Rami Malek, Ambyr Childers, Jesse Plemons, Kevin J O'Connor, Christopher Evan Welch, Lena Endre, Madisen Beaty, Martin Dew
release US 21.Sep.12, UK 2.Nov.12
12/US Weinstein 2h17
The Master
Following the leader: Phoenix and Hoffman

adams dern plemmons

R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
The Master Anderson continues examining themes of control and influence in this companion piece to There Will Be Blood, which loosely adapts the history of Scientology in early 1950s America. Equally jarring and offbeat, the film also features especially pungent performances.

After the war, seaman Freddie Quell (Phoenix) drifts across America and boards a boat leaving San Francisco. Its captain is Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), known as the Master to the followers of the Cause, which essentially says that if we could tap into our eternal souls, we would understand the truth about our humanity. As they sail to New York, Freddie becomes part of the family along with Dodd's wife (Adams), son (Plemons), daughter and son-in-law (Childers and Malek). His stubborn refusal to elevate himself causes problems, but he and Dodd have an indelible connection.

This relationship is the film's central plot, rather than any sequence of events. Indeed, the narrative lurches in fits and starts, with confusing transitions and sequences that get under the skin without seeming to push things forward. Much of this centres around Dodd's "processing" techniques, which explores hidden past-lives knowledge. But this link between Dodd and Freddie is gripping, mainly because we don't know whether it's about control, attraction, affinity or jealousy. All of which we can see.

Phoenix twists his face and body into the scrawny, wiry Freddie, so his unpredictability actually starts making sense, especially as we learn more about his past. Hoffman gives a more layered turn, undercutting Dodd's assured bravado with quiet shadows of affection, weariness and impatience, but never a hint of doubt. And when he breaks into song, it's eerily characteristic. Meanwhile, Adams is the film's dark horse, lurking off to the sides but carrying a massive wallop in most scenes.

The central ideas come from both men's perspectives. Is it possible to save someone who doesn't realise that they need to be saved? If someone tells you exactly what to believe and how to express it, is it true faith? And setting this in optimistic post-war America adds a fascinating spin, especially since both men have chosen to disengage from the status quo. In the end, Anderson is perhaps too indulgent to let us in on his joke, but there's no denying the film's power to unnerve us.

cert 15 themes, language, violence, sexuality 8.Oct.12

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© 2012 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall