The Master: Phoenix and Hoffman Soar

Thursday, September 20, 2012

I got a call from a friend around 6 p.m. telling me that she had tickets to an advanced screening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, “The Master,” at the Castro Theater. I jumped on BART and eventually found myself in line with about 1,500 diehard P.T. Anderson fans. After 137 minutes of one of the most engaging, beautiful and overwhelming pieces of film I have seen in years, I turned to my friend and asked, “What did you think?” With a frustrated look on her face, she replied, “I didn't get it.”

In “The Master,” Anderson has taken the concept of a character study to a metaphysical level. He has traded linear time lines and plot for raw emotions, repetitive imagery and visual metaphor in order to tap into that which motivates us all: power, whether it be over ourselves or over another. The context of this analysis is the story of a deeply damaged World War II veteran named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). He is the epitome of a wayward soul, brewing moonshine from whatever he has lying around and destroying everything he touches. Until he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the wealthy and outright unsettling leader of the Cause, whose hypnosis-like process of indoctrination so closely resembles Scientology that many may think that is the point of the film. It’s not. The film is a study of what happens when one tries to control the uncontrollable.

This could only have been pulled off with actors such as Phoenix and Hoffman, who have redefined the concept of method acting. In “The Master,” they have stripped their roles down to their core and made palpable the motivations of these two ferocious characters. Though Amy Adams continues to impress as she perfects her art, she was not given much room to shine as Peggy Dodd, a woman devoted to the Cause and her husband, but lacking in her own motivations.

Put plainly, if you were looking for “The Master” to be an Oliver Stone-like biopic of L. Ron Hubbard and the origin of Scientology, save your $9.75 and buy yourself a specialty draft beer the next time you go to a Giants game. But if you like movies to challenge your concepts of film and explore the human experience as much as I do, this will be the best movie you watch for years.