Movie Review: “The Master” Commands Attention

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

The Master, a charismatic, intellectual pontificator ingeniously portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is full of it. Full of the previous life dogma he’s selling, full of hope for lost souls in search of meaning, and full of himself. He says he’s an M.D. and a Ph.D. Among the things he’s got us wondering is whether or not he believes the stuff he spouts.

Equally intriguing, and about as difficult to comprehend is the drifter, Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell, who, when he traipses into The Master’s den, completes the compelling yin and yang of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s precarious quinella. Shades of Lenny in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” he’s a loose cannon looking for his George.

But I’m here to tell you not to take any of this provocative, rather epic parable to heart…at least not too terribly. I felt badly for the lady in the 12th row, right, who, following the closing credits of the 2 & ½ hour brainteaser, looked to her friend and said, “Well, it’s beyond me.” Oh, Mamie (she looked like a Mamie), don’t sell yourself short.

This is the type of abstract meditation open to any and all interpretations, most of which will say much more about the viewer than the movie. The genre reached its influential peak in the 1960s when Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) brandished equal parts genius, chutzpah, grace and mischief. I’m still trying to figure out that one.

Thus the suggestion is not to let the inherent inscrutability get in the way of your entertainment. While the auteur Anderson’s well-fashioned obscurity, intentional or not, is an important spice in the motion picture’s recipe, this isn’t, after all, a whodunit. Save your befuddlement for things like “The Usual Suspects” (1995). This one’s for musing.

So polish the coffee table, bake a blueberry pie, and plan to invite your favorite post-movie couple over for some heady, après film discussion. “The Master” certainly supplies the incentive. Beautifully filmed and boasting at least three nomination-worthy performances, the character-driven quandaries and conundrums are ripe with fascination.

The scary thought is, there are all sorts of characters like this in our everyday world, rubbing elbows with us, tangentially affecting our immediate atmosphere if not directly impacting our lives. Insofar as Freddie Quell, just out of the Navy and trying to find his bearings in the aftermath of war, it’s very lucky if we don’t run into him in real life.

But here, safe in our seats, we’re drawn in by the danger he represents. Suffering posttraumatic stress, an alcoholic, and unable to keep a job, thanks to Mr. Phoenix’s intensely alluring portrayal we wonder what constitutes such a damaged human. Were the signs there before WWII? No matter, we can’t help but feel sorry for the tortured soul.

At the other end of the film’s mental tug-o-war, drawing little sympathy but just as much of our wariness, is the equally anguished title character, simply known to the authorities as Lancaster Dodd. Uh, there’s the little matter of an $11,000 debt. Hoffman paints a devilishly complex portrait, asking us to decide if he is in earnest or a mere charlatan.

Dodd’s movement, faith-based only in that you must have total faith in The Master, calls itself The Cause. But hark, dear reader, don’t let the action in the center ring divert your eyes from the gambit’s anterooms, where Amy Adams’s Peggy Dodd weaves her web. Subtle with the acumen of a Bismarck, she is the Madame Defarge of hubby’s domain.

Ooh, she’s a little chilling, and makes you wonder who’s in charge. That’s just one of the many question marks that comprises the scenario. There is no storyline per se, but rather, a continually nerve-jangling panoply of beguiling conjectures, query #1 being whether or not Freddie will succumb to The Master, kill him, kill himself, or gosh knows what else.

But wait, there’s more. Sewn into this period piece that takes place in the late 1940s and early ‘50’s is a poetic, sociological survey of the times, with its insight intrinsically focused on war, peace and the ambiguity that is our humanness. Mr. Anderson (“There Will be Blood”—2007) has the rare ability to accomplish this without seeming pedantic.

Oh, and then there’s that other thing: the desperate need by most folks to believe in some explanation of our being, no matter how outlandish the system. It’s far more preferable than the oblivious alternative. This is smart, bold cinema, though not without a bit of the emperor’s new clothes tossed in just to remind us not to take “The Master” on face value.

“The Master,” rated R, is a Weinstein Company release directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and stars Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. Running time: 137 minutes

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