What can be said about Paul Thomas Anderson? To say the very least, he’s one of the most interesting artists making movies today. Whether you believe his films are genius or pretentious, everyone should be able to agree that Anderson’s work always promises something utterly unique. In “The Master,” Anderson renders another extraordinarily strange, yet beautiful, tale that you’ll never be able to take your eyes off of. In the most basic terms, this is a genuine American masterwork from a masterful storyteller.
Joaquin Phoenix appeared so dazed and lost when he allegedly retired a few years ago. It’s only appropriate that he would make his comeback as a seemingly deranged individual. That’s not to say Phoenix is typecast in “The Master.” If anything, this is the most daring and complex performance of his impressive acting career. Showing some age and dropping a noticeable amount of weight, Phoenix fully embodies Freddie Quell, a lonely and disturbed man searching for a place in the world. Like many men in pursuit of purpose, Freddie joins the navy. The armed forces provide a fitting outlet for Freddy to express his insanity. But when World War II comes to an end in the 1950’s, he is forced to find a new locale to function in.
In an attempt to integrate with society, Freddie gets a job as photographer at a store. Being unpredictably aggressive though, he proves unfit to maintain any profession. His drunken travels take him aboard a boat where he meets Lancaster Dodd, a leader of a religious group known as The Cause. Dodd, or the Master as he comes to be known, claims to know the secrets of the universe and the meaning of life. Awestruck, Freddie soon joins Dodd’s inner circle, which includes a lingering Amy Adams as the cult leader’s dedicated wife.
The film’s key performance comes from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who ranges from being calmly humble to commandingly god-like as the Master. Dodd is a vague being that constantly leaves spectators on edge as they contemplate what he’ll do next. Is he a wise prophet with a master plan, a conman exploiting those seeking faith or just a deluded nut making stuff up as he goes along? Hoffman and Anderson’s screenplay never lay out a clear motive, making Dodd an even more chilling and ambiguous presence.
Although “The Master” never makes a direct reference to the Church of Scientology, one can’t help but relate Dodd to L. Ron Hubbard. After all, Hubbard was in the navy and his teachings were arguably the product of imagination. The inspiration for “The Master” is aside the point though. This isn’t a movie that sets out to make a mockery of Scientology or religion. It’s a gorgeously shot, superbly acted piece of work about a drifting soul looking for something, or someone, to believe in. Hoffman and Phoenix are unanimously brilliant in their roles with one as a disoriented student and the other as a teacher with the promise of answers. Along with Anderson, they’re guaranteed Oscar nominations for one of the most fascinating movies of 2012.
Nick Spake is a college student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for the past seven years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org