Star Rating: 4.5/5
- Paul Thomas Anderson – Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood
- Joaquin Phoenix – Gladiator, We Own The Night, Nightingale
- Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Ides of March, Moneyball, A Most Wanted Man
- Amy Adams – Charlie Wilson’s War, The Fighter, Man of Steel
- Ambyr Childers – Playback, Crossfire, Gangster Squad
- Jesse Plemons – Paul, Battleship, Flutter
Tom Cruise and John Travolta are two of the most well-known members of the Church of Scientology. Following the former’s divorce to Katie Holmes earlier this year, the nature of the quasi-religion/cult, founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1952, was came under media scrutiny, and not without some bad press. Yet, one key element that was not addressed during the Cruise-Holmes divorce was the type of individual who would join such a movement. The Master gives us some ideas in excellent fashion.
The Master is set during the 1950s, centred round Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Freddie is a naval veteran who is yet to find peace with himself after World War II (WWII). He is suffering from a multitude of psychological issues and drinking anything to excess that he can get his hands on.
Randomly, he finds himself aboard a ship that is being borrowed by a movement, called The Cause. There, he finds himself mesmerised by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of the cult, believing that Lancaster has the cure to his problems.
The Master is a 144-minute art-house film with a peculiar atmosphere. The 1950s-style music has been adjusted, weirdly, yet aptly, to make one feel uncomfortable in almost every scene as we explore the nature of this bizarre cult through Freddie’s eyes.
One watches with bewilderment as The Cause’s followers lap up Lancaster Dodd’s (bonkers) ideology, as well as their aggressive reactions to those who dare to question any aspect of the dogma, even if it is illogical and contradictory. Moreover, one sees the 1984-style, brainwashing techniques that some cults adopt not only to allow people to join the movement, but to ensure that they are ‘committed’ to the cause.
The alarming craziness of The Cause’s ideology makes up for the slowness of The Master and the lack of activity in the plot. The quality of the acting does the same. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a master-class performance as someone suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and alcoholism (paint-thinner and lighter fluid included). He always looks exhausted, distressed, and like he’s about to blow a fuse. Additionally, his speech is consistently slurred, entailing that viewers will believe that Freddie is on the verge of a psychotic breakdown.
Whilst Phoenix is the stand-out performer in the film, the rest of the cast do their roles with equal capability, even if their ones are less challenging. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays exceptionally plausibly as the captivating, yet mad and flawed leader of the cult. Hoffman’s aura and charisma, as Lancaster Dodd, indicates why so many people in 1950s America were drawn to (the self-declared human-deity) L. Ron Hubbard. In addition, Dodd’s magnetic personality hints at how Hubbard managed to found the Church of Scientology and accrue millions of dollars from his followers. That all of this can be encompassed in one performance is testament to Hoffman’s acting skills.
Phoenix and Hoffman dominate The Master, thereby leaving little room for the rest of the cast to showcase their abilities. Nevertheless, Amy Adams plays very well as Lancaster’s wife, whose devotion to the movement is scarily absolute; similar things can be said for Ambyr Childers, who plays as Lancaster’s daughter, and who spends much of the time she is on screen teasing Freddie; and Jesse Plemons does a decent enough job as Lancaster’s son, who ultimately knows that his father is a phoney making it all up as he goes along.
Much praise should rightly go to the cast. But director Paul Thomas Anderson should also get credit for making The Master look like one is reliving 1950s America. The clothes, the hair-styles and the music all seem to perfectly fit into place. Furthermore, there is no mention of the term ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ in the movie. This is because the term did not exist in those days. Still, it would have been easy for Anderson (even if it would have been patronising on the audience) to have had someone in the film state the obvious and make a factual error. After-all, in Gladiator Ridley Scott made Lucilla, the sister of Emperor Commodus, played coincidentally by Phoenix, outlive her brother when in fact she predeceased her brother; and in the 2009 Dorian Gray, Oliver Parker inserted the Suffragettes into the narrative, even though when Oscar Wilde wrote the book in 1890 the Suffragettes had yet to be formed. Anderson, therefore, should be complimented for not falling into such a trap.
All-in-all, The Master is a brilliant, but strange movie. The film might be slow, long and devoid of a linear plot. However, with superb acting and analogies to real-life cults, like Scientology, one is likely to be mesmerised whilst watching the movie from the point of view of the messed-up Freddie. Freddie might have ostensibly little in common with the likes of Tom Cruise and John Travolta but, through Freddie, The Master can give one an understanding for the sorts of people who join cults.