Previously published in slightly different form in The Cube.
“Man is not an animal,” states Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd. Freddie Quell, portrayed in a career-defining turn by Joaquin Phoenix, seems willed into existence to challenge that belief. A pugnacious vagabond with a predilection for toxic alcoholic concoctions, Quell is a ball of twitchy-nervousness and repressed feelings that externalize themselves in his contorted posture and persistent sneer. Meanwhile, Hoffman brings Dodd to life with a distinctly Wellesian theatrical air. He is a man always aware of his audience, even when alone. The performances—like the characters—are a study in contrasts; this dichotomy is expertly visualized midway through the film in an excruciatingly long take that uses a dividing wall as a makeshift split-screen, observing the opposing reactions the characters exhibit when presented with the same predicament.
The contrapuntal relationship between these men is at the film’s heart. Lancaster Dodd is the titular “Master,” the figurehead of a burgeoning religion or, if you are feeling less charitable, cult. Freddie quite literally stumbles into his wake and is quickly swept away. The magnetism that develops between them in Freddie’s first “processing” session is such that the viewer cannot help but submit to its attraction. Dodd sees in Freddie’s mania something of an acid test for his crackpot theories, and Freddie, a man who has lived his entire life held at an arm’s length by others, is mesmerized by the constant attention Dodd bestows upon him. The latest in a chain of surrogate father-son relationships that populate the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, it serves to both fuel and undermine the characters while inspiring concern in Dodd’s wife.
Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, was widely considered one of the best films of the previous decade, and the intervening five years—rife with production disputes, financiers backing out, etc.—have created a wave of anticipation for The Master. If it does not appear to reach the heights of its predecessor, it is likely because Anderson has forgone the spectacular set pieces of previous films in favor of a quieter style that is less cathartic. Intimate close-ups wrench every ounce of emotion from the actor’s faces, while patient wide shots relate the rare bursts of action. This strategy conveys the cast’s performances to the audience as transparently as possible without ceding directorial authority. Beautiful cinematography, seamless editing, and a disconcerting score, courtesy of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, make it all appear effortless.
Much has been made of the film’s roots in the history of Scientology, and while that is undoubtedly a factor, Anderson has greater aims. A film satirizing or condemning the contentious religion would have been much easier to conceive but resulted in a lesser artistic expression. Anderson’s masterstroke is humanizing Lancaster Dodd, seeing in him a long line of charlatans, showmen, and hucksters who have populated the American landscape and captivated its imagination. Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard is only the most imposing of these men who believe—or at least profess to believe—they possess the cure to the nation’s spiritual ills.