You cannot take your eyes off The Master, neither Paul Thomas Anderson's new film nor Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role of Lancaster Dodd. Whether the fascination is a result of the film's having been shot in rich 65 mm film stock, a visual treat evocative of the way films used to look, or because Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in the role of Freddie Quell, a World War II navy veteran who literally washes up on the beach, display behavior that is perplexing, in a pas de deux of power and subservience.
If an earlier Anderson work, There Will Be Blood, based on the 19th century American novel Oil, revealed characters at the bottom of the Great Chain of Being, Man closer to animal than to angel, here the filmmaker further explores the dynamic: particularly in Freddie, a scoundrel as he's called, all rage and terror particularly in the physical harm he does to himself. Locked up in one scene, he bangs his back ferociously on the metal bunk bed of his jail cell; he appears permanently disfigured. Days after a special screening at the Ziegfeld Theater, I can still hear that clanging, see Phoenix skinny and stooped, a self-mutilated wounded bird.
Lancaster Dodd is allegedly based on L. Ron Hubbard, said to have called his Scientology cult a church to avoid taxes. The Master shows little in the way of spirituality, although the dialogue between Dodd and his acolytes, including Laura Dern as a wealthy socialite, nods to a hunger for faith. Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd provides a stabilizing and fertile female energy; seen either pregnant or carrying an infant, she is uber-Mom as wife to Dodd, the Father.
Post-screening, many attendees, a who's who in film, including Harvey Weinstein, Amy Adams, Joel Grey, Rosie Perez, D. A. Pennebaker, Julie Taymour, Shirley Knight, Bob Balaban, Trudie Styler, Lily Rabe, Allison Williams, Grace Gummer, Adrien Brody with his mom Sylvia Plachy, lingered in the Ziegfeld's courtyard, pondering the movie's meaning, enthralled by Anderson's master-ful epic-length head trip.
No amount of cuddly animals featured in the movie Francine, which premiered the next night at MoMA, can soften the title character, expertly brought to chilly life by Melissa Leo. Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky's story about a woman so removed from human relations that sex for her is rear entry and cold, her only warmth comes from the creatures she hoards. Tough material, this tightly conceived near silent film is well worth seeing.
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