A scene of roiling water on the open seas is a recurring visual in The Master (* * 1/2 out of four, rated R, opens Friday in select cities) that summarizes the heart of this challenging and sometimes frustrating film.
It suits the rambling story’s churning tension and provides an apt symbol for the turmoil that plagues the dissolute, volatile drifter Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Quell, a WWII Navy vet, has heaps of psychotic anger he can’t quell, so his name is particularly ironic. Given that he’s adrift, it’s not surprising he’s drawn into the wake of blustery cult leader Lancaster Dodd, played exquisitely by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
With this mesmerizing and massively ambitious film, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has taken pains to re-create the ’50s with superb production design and gorgeous cinematography. But he seems less concerned with whether the audience is along for the ride. The story can leave viewers at sea, floundering to give meaning to what they are watching.
Quell drunkenly stumbles onto a yacht that has been donated to Dodd and serves as a base from where he washes away his followers’ failures and inadequacies.
This is not at all the inflammatory expose of Scientology that has been rumored, though Dodd has several points in common with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The film also is not a full-fledged examination of what propels cults of personality and their devotees. This is both its strength and its weakness: The subtlety and narrow focus on two characters are equally compelling and maddening.
The core of the film is the symbiotic bond between Dodd and Quell. But the men have opposing ambitions and personal styles, and given that there is little explained about Dodd’s back story, it’s not evident why they’re drawn to each other.
The contrast between Dodd and Quell is brilliantly juxtaposed when both are arrested and placed in adjacent cells. Dodd is the picture of calm restraint, while Quell gives vent to the animal tendencies his mentor has tried to drum out of him with his pseudo-scientific teachings known as “the Cause.” Dodd preaches that people are spirits that have been around for trillions of years and can master their emotions and heal themselves…
Read more: USA Today