Take a good look at this photo. Ask yourself: Do I want to look at this face, up close, wearing mostly this expression, on the giant screen, for two plus hours? Because that is what watching The Master entails. I did, and I enjoyed it, I think, although there were definitely times during the grip of this intense, psychologically fraught film, when it felt very much as though I were myself caught in its subject: a cult of personality.
Although there is much double-talk on the part of both director and distributor to avoid litigation by the extremely defensive Scientology camp, this film can be taken as nothing other than a very clear roman à clef of the very strange life and work of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. His stand-in here is named Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who by all reports bears an uncanny resemblance to the young L. Ron Hubbard. Furthermore, the story begins in 1950, exactly the date of the beginning of the development of Hubbard’s own work in Dianetics and the “technologies” that would eventually come to be encoded as the doctrines of Scientology.
The interesting choice, made, according to articles, at the suggestion of Hoffman himself, was to divert the point of view from Dodd to a deeply troubled and outcast WWII veteran named Freddy Quell. The name is symbolic, of course, for if there’s anything Freddy can’t do, it’s to quell the raging animal within himself. He is a rageaholic and an alcoholic, who will beat down a man for any reason and drink anything in reach, be it rubbing alcohol, hair tonic, paint thinner or fuel. Played—or should I say inhabited—by Joaquin Phoenix in something of a comeback to acting, Freddy is as terrifying and disturbed a character as Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle and portrayed as a similarly sneering, shuffling, mumbling menace, so contorted and damaged that it actually shows in his twisted posture and walk.
Is it all too much, a bit overplayed and undernuanced? There are intimations that Freddy is insane. His mother is “in the loony bin” and his father drank himself to death. And Dodd’s wife, played by a knife-sharp Amy Adams, declares him to be mentally unfit. As for Phoenix’s performance, his gaze is fierce, but opaque. Though he is the protagonist, he is, throughout, a closed book, giving us little insight into his attraction to Dodd’s teachings.
More fascinating, to me, are the monied, respectable society ladies who flock to him, most notably a honey-voiced but sharp-eyed Philadelphia matron played by the wonderful Laura Dern. What is their motivation, and what do they seek and find, ever so briefly, in the care of the highly charismatic and seductive Dodd. Hoffman is as fine as ever, giving a richly layered portrait of a prophet who believes his own prophecies, and effortlessly spins spells of enchantment, yet is more riddled with foibles and human weakness than any of them.
The Master is written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, which guarantees a certain degree of intensity and a very high level of craft and superb performances. This film deserves Oscars, certainly for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s acting and the gorgeously dark 65mm cinematography by Coppola’s own Romanian wizard, Mihai Malaimare Jr., and probably for the script as well, and will surely be nominated for them. Is it enjoyable and is it moving? Possibly not. However, it’s gripping and fascinating, and well worth your time. If, at the end, you are grateful to be able to walk away, that is perhaps an indication of its power.