Movie Review: 'The Master' (2012)

“The Master” is dumbfounding. Paul Thomas Anderson’s almost 2 and half-hour film is a tour de force in the closest avant-garde filmmaking that American cinema has seen in some time, all the while maintaining some semblance of mainstream appeal.

Anderson (the director of “Boogie Nights”) has long been lauded as one of the most skilled directors of the last 15 years. He is more than deserving of a title, and this film makes a strong case for why. Not all directors could keep the subject matter and script as staggeringly sharp as this film does. Nevertheless, Anderson captures something remarkable in his quest to loosely explore the origins of Scientology. 

The highly-skilled director shows you how someone could be drawn into something so abstract and, at times, obscene. The cinematography puts the film in another dimension, cementing it as art. That is one of the things this movie does best, transcending the typical trope of being cast aside as simply being a movie. 

This is art in its finest, most intelligible form. It is a perfect example of what art is all about. Art is ambiguous, provocative, and, most times, indecipherable. The essence of art is to reveal what it is you see when you look at it. “The Master” is open to many interpretations.

The heart of the story isn’t the titular “Master,” it is Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who is our ubiquitous host in the Master’s bizarre world. He is disheveled, emotionally tormented, sexually dysfunctional, crass in the crudest sense of the word, and honest, uncomfortably honest.

During his exploits, he happens upon a boat party that Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is throwing in honor of his daughter’s (Amber Childers) engagement. This is when the story truly begins. Dodd is quickly entranced by Quell and his profane mind, which is a complete mystery.

Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Quell is stunningly authentic, vulnerably so. It is not a neat or tidy performance but rather a role that he consumes with reckless abandon while avoiding the pitfalls of buffoonery. Phoenix makes Quell frighteningly real. Phoenix’s dimension to the role is quintessential to fully realizing a character. In lesser hands, Quell could have been chaotic and devoid of any direction.

As for Hoffman, his incarnation of the seedy and sophisticated Dodd is captivating in every way. His charisma is what works to bewitch his prey. He’s maniacal in a really gentle, unsettling way. He displays a trance-like magnetism that permeates the mind. So, even though you might try your best to approach what he’s saying with incredulity, he works on you. It is an uneasy glimpse into the secretive world of how a leader of any sort can ensnare someone.

The magnificent Amy Adams as Dodd’s devoted acolyte and wife, Peggy, supports his performance. She, too, turns in a no-holds-bar performance. Playing the out-there Peggy with a crazed nuance that also makes her understandable. At the core of the film is the relational triangle of Dodd, Quell, and Peggy. Adams clarifies that Peggy isn’t desperate to remain number one in Dodd’s orbit. There is simply no other option.

What makes “The Master” so fascinating is that it is a character study. After watching it for the first time, I was left so stunned that I walked away, not really grasping what I’d just witnessed. It was too trippy at first glance to truly understand. Ultimately, it needed time to sink in.

When it did, the realization hit that I wasn’t really confused. I was awestruck. “The Master” makes you think, it makes you question, and that is what great cinema is supposed to do. It’s what great art is supposed to do. Rating: 8.5/10