Can a broken man be “fixed” by religion? That is one of many questions at the heart of the complex new Paul Thomas Anderson ('Boogie Nights', 'Magnolia') film, 'The Master'. Navy vet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) returns from World War II with a “nervous condition”. He’s a broken shell of a man, but was probably not very whole before the war began. Freddie is pure Id: primitive, unpredictable, lacking any social boundaries and almost always drunk. After drifting from job to job (with violent and sometimes deadly consequences), Freddie stumbles upon a ship, a place where he knows he can rest his head. While nursing a hangover, he is brought to the ship’s captain, Lancaster Dodd (Phillips Seymour Hoffman). The charismatic Lancaster is The Master of a movement he founded called The Cause, which uses a system called “processing” to help potential converts relieve the traumas from their past. Lancaster sees Freddie as a raw animal, the perfect candidate for his “cure”. And he also enjoys the mean cocktails Freddie whips up using paint thinner and other (potentially poisonous) ingredients.
Thus begins the back-and-forth, sometimes explosive relationship between the two men: the Master and the Follower. Freddie is skeptical at first, not one to trust anyone who welcomes him with open arms. But he soon embraces the followers of The Cause, and sees a Father figure in Lancaster (Freddie’s real father is an alcoholic and his mother is committed). But the cracks begin to show when Lancaster is called out for running a cult, and questionably spending some of his wealthy followers’ money. And when Lancaster’s own son (Jesse Plemons) tells Freddie that his father is ‘making it up as he goes along’, Freddie is enraged, and quickly turns against the hand that feeds him.
Lancaster and his movement bear more than just a passing similarity to L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. The intense “processing” sessions appear to be modeled after Scientology’s “audits.” And like Scientology, Lancaster believes in former lives and speaks of past events that occurred “trillions” of years ago. So while Anderson has distanced himself from the claim, it’s hard not to think that the film is, at least, a critique of the religion.
Hoffman is stunning as a leader who truly believes he can make a difference in people’s lives, and is angered when those he helps choose to question their Master. Amy Adams has a marvelous turn as Hoffman’s wife, Peggy, who is the only one with the clarity to see that Freddie may just be their undoing. But Joaquin Phoenix owns this movie. He’s electrifying on screen – you can’t take your eyes off him because you never know what he’ll do next. Phoenix has handily won best actor for this role. He just hasn’t picked up his statue.
The only drawback from the film is one that Anderson has been guilty of in the past: the audience is left wanting more. There will be no easy ending to be found in this tale of megalomania. Instead, audiences are left wondering who is worse off: the man who believes he knows all the answers, or the man who simply does not care.