Other than it possibly being the best film of the year so far, much of the buzz surrounding Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film, The Master, is that it's loosely based on the origins of Scientology, the pseudo-science religion that fascinates and disturbs so many people. While that may help draw in some audience members hoping to find ammunition to attack what they see as a cult -- or maybe to learn why Katie Holmes really left Tom Cruise -- focusing too much on Scientology would only be a distraction from what's really happening in The Master. The film is not an exposé of Scientology so much as it is about the yearning we all have to find meaning and comfort in our lives -- especially after a period of upheaval -- by being a part of something bigger than ourselves, be it a family, an organization, or a belief system promising the key to happiness and inner peace.
But one thing is for sure: The Master is a masterpiece that already feels like a classic. Watch my ReThink Review of The Master below (transcript after the video).
Director Paul Thomas Anderson has only made six feature films over 16 years. But in that time, he's distinguished himself as perhaps the best of a very strong generation of filmmakers, which includes David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, and arguably Wes Anderson. His latest film, The Master, was written by PT, is shot in gorgeous 70mm, and is fucking spectacular on every level, signaling the beginning and, in many ways, the end of the Oscar season, since The Master already feels like a classic that's going to be very, very hard to beat.
Set in 1950 at the end of World War II, Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a troubled sailor who appears to have a form of post-traumatic stress before such things were taken seriously. His erratic, sex-obsessed, sometimes violent behavior and talent for making cocktails out of dangerous household chemicals makes him unable to hold a job, and after being chased from another one, he finds himself stowing away on a boat where a wedding will be taking place.
The father of the bride is Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who describes himself as a writer, a nuclear scientist, and a theoretical philosopher. But as we and Freddie find out, Dodd is the creator of a pseudo-scientific therapy religion based on his book 'The Cause,' which seeks to wake people to their true selves and help them master their emotions by regressing them back to the womb. In addition to the wedding, the cruise is also for followers to immerse themselves in therapy sessions and lectures, as well as socialize with the charismatic Dodd.
The possibility of addressing Freddie's many deep-seated problems makes Freddie and Dodd an irresistible match, with Freddie attracted by the chance to find meaning and safety in the unconventional family Dodd has created, while Dodd is fascinated by Freddie's raw emotions and violent unpredictability, especially when it's unleashed on critics of the Cause, and sees Freddie as both a surrogate son and the perfect guinea pig. All this takes place under the watchful eye of Dodd's wife, Peggy (played by Amy Adams), in a Lady Macbeth-type role pulling the strings behind the scenes.
A lot has been said about whether the Cause is code for Scientology. Anderson drew a lot of inspiration from L. Ron Hubbard and the origins of Scientology, but to say that The Master is about Scientology misses the point. Post World War II America was filled with people searching for new ways to understand themselves and the world after emerging from a period of horrific slaughter and sacrifice, which also led to the rise of the counterculture, the Beats, and an embrace of eastern philosophy. And as a personal note, I don't see Scientology as being better, worse, or crazier than so-called established religions, where the big difference to me is that Scientology puts its pseudo-science ahead of its belief in magic wish-granting sky monsters, instead of the other way around.
The most important thing is that The Master is a freaking masterpiece. Every frame of it looks like it should be hanging in a museum. The art direction and costumes beautifully recreate 1950s America while somehow making it seem fresh. And I was very glad to see Anderson continuing his collaboration with Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood on yet another haunting, evocative score.
But at the film's heart are two jaw-dropping, totally different performances from Phoenix and Hoffman. Phoenix disappears into the role with a transformed voice, gait, and set of mannerisms, and he clearly pushed himself to the edge of his limits to the point that I was worried about both his physical and mental well-being. In contrast, Hoffman is a portrait of controlled charisma and showmanship hiding deep veins of paranoia and insecurity.
Some people find The Master and Anderson's other movies to be confusing and pretentious, but that's because Anderson makes the movies he wants and allows viewers to make their own conclusions instead of tying everything up with a pretty bow. And by doing so, and taking the time to do it right, Anderson makes some of the most compelling, evocative, and unique films out there, and The Master is all those things and more.