(NEW YORK) — In The Master, writer/director P.T. Anderson uses the founding of Scientology as the backdrop for his story. But this is not a film about Scientology, nor does it ever refer to Scientology. Instead, it is simply known as “the Cause.”
At the head of the Cause is Lancaster Dodd, clearly based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and played, masterfully, by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who at this point should be everybody’s favorite actor. We’ll get to him in a minute.
The catalyst for The Master is Freddy Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Freddy is an alcoholic World War II Navy vet who’s having trouble assimilating back into society after the war. He takes a job as a department store photographer in 1950s San Francisco, a setting and scene that shows Anderson and Phoenix at their very best. The department store is so authentic you don’t think you’re watching a movie — you believe you might be in the store, witnessing a hung-over portrait photographer lose his mind. It is a beautiful sequence, one of many.
After losing his job, Freddy drifts in and out of jobs in a drunken haze as quickly as he drifts in and out of reality. That is, until he stumbles upon a festive boat, a beacon of light cutting through a misty night on the San Francisco docks. We’re treated to a shot that has already become The Master’s calling card, as the boat dreamily heads towards the Golden Gate Bridge. If you love aesthetically pleasing visuals heavy with meaning, well, here you go.
Freddy stows away on the New York-bound boat, which is commanded by Lancaster Dodd — a man of many talents, so he says, among them author, philosopher, nuclear physicist, etc. He takes a liking to Freddy, especially when he discovers Freddy has a talent for distilling alcohol from just about anything, including Lysol. But there’s more to Dodd’s affection for Freddy, and I’m not entirely convinced even Anderson knows exactly what it is. Perhaps Freddy is Dodd’s alter ego, or the son he never had — even though Dodd does indeed have a son. Whatever the reason, our budding religious leader believes he’s met Freddy before, and since the Cause believes in past life regression and time travel, who knows in which life, dimension or era their earlier acquaintance may have been.
Believe me when I tell you, there is a scene in The Master that features some of the best acting you will ever see. It’s when Dodd “processes” Freddy. Processing would be similar to what Scientologists call “auditing,” in which case we should thank Scientology for being indirectly responsible for a scene that will inspire actors and filmmakers for years to come. Hoffman and Phoenix create two of the better characters we’ve seen on film in a long time.
As if the heavyweight championship performances by Phoenix and Hoffman weren’t enough, let’s throw in Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife, who may very well be the brains and brawn behind the Cause. In The Master, Adams delivers the most vulnerable and powerful performance of her career.
All of this makes for an incredible 90-minute affair. The Master, though, is two hours and 16 minutes long, and comes dangerously close to collapsing under its own weight. There are many great and gorgeous moments in this film but as noted earlier, it gave me the feeling that Anderson doesn’t really know what his own movie is about. That’s not a crime, but when it’s obvious it seems just a tad lazy, despite the clear effort and brilliance underlying most of the film.
Three-and-a-half out of five stars.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio