The Master

Year: 2012
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Producer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Kevin J O'Connor, Laura Dern

It's very fashionable for directors and writers to distance themselves from the controversies that are central or prominent in their films. The Innocence of Muslims notwithstanding, maybe they're just hoping to avoid getting caught up in socio-political discussions they fear will detract from the movie.

We saw it with Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee telling everyone it wasn't a gay love story, it was just a love story. Ever since the production of The Master was announced, everyone involved has been telling us it isn't about Scientology. Ignore everything you've heard. The Master is about Scientology as much as Citizen Kane is about William Randolph Hearst.

To be fair, writer/director PT Anderson might not be intending to tell the story of Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard (or even a slice of his life), but there are far too many similarities lifted straight from the real-life religion/cult. There's the enigmatic overlord himself, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who makes every film the performance of his career and has here), who claims to be a 'writer, doctor, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher', all without any formal training.

There's a scene of Dodd being arrested for practicing medicine without a license, which could be considered a footnote to the controversy the Church has faced throughout its existence for claiming it can cure medical conditions through scientifically questionable means.

The first act takes place on a luxury yacht, a bit too similar to the history of the Scientology leadership taking to the sea (so Hubbard and senior Church officials could avoid outstanding warrants and prosecution, it's claimed) to ignore.

And the training and exercises acolytes undertake – from crossing a room repeatedly until the surfaces of walls and windows take on metaphysical proportions to the confronting third degree grilling during tests and interviews – are exactly like the dirty secrets we've all heard about.

If it's not about Scientology, it's about a Scientology-like leader finding a pet project, lost soul Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). After returning from World War II where his specialty seems to have been brewing bootleg booze in the bodies of naval munitions, Freddy drifts between a few jobs, making trouble for himself because of his antisocial temper before stowing away on board a yacht late one freezing night.

He wakes up the next morning and is taken to Dodd, the charismatic leader of a school of philosophical thought based on his book The Cause. Dodd is quite taken with Freddie, who it seems mixed up some of his signature hooch for the party before passing out. For reasons never really explained or explored, Dodd wants to be friends with Freddy and ultimately return him to the path The Cause outlines for mankind.

But Freddy might be beyond taming, and he might disprove Dodd's theory that man isn't an animal and doesn't have to be enslaved to his emotions. Even though he seems to love and believe in Dodd, Freddy is a hopeless drunk and lech given to fits of violence. Watch him destroy a jail cell in a rage sounds slightly comical, but it's an actor at the top of his game.

Because even though Hoffman could transfix an audience by reading the phone book if he wanted to, this is absolutely the performance of Phoenix's career – no slouch himself in the acting stakes.

With his constantly angry smirk, words spat contemptuously out of the side of his mouth and hunched shoulders, Phoenix brings Freddie off the page with all the verve and menace Heath Ledger did playing The Joker in The Dark Knight. Never one to get anything less than brilliance from any actor, Anderson has combined two performers who prove themselves at the top of their craft.

None of which detracts from Anderson himself, the third star of the show. The period detail of 1950s America, from American sailors clowning around on a beach to a Fifth Avenue-like department store, looks perfect in every detail, the background texture and colours as gilded or grubby as they need to be and feeling as authentic as you've seen in a period piece.

Anderson's camera is never jarring, never moves faster than a smooth crawl, and captures a rich array of imagery. He's just as comfortable with a wide, flat desert panhandle straight out of the David Lean playbook as he is in a close-up of Phoenix's snarling face.

In fact, the steady hand of the camera and performances could be the film's undoing among some audiences. As an exercise in storytelling, The Master is as devoid of passion as Dodd wants mankind to be, everything from the shots to the performances calmly and assuredly considered and delivered without any real emotive relish. Even as Freddy kicks seven shades out of a cramped prison cell, the camera looks on from outside the bars in complete stillness, like a disapproving adult waiting for a spoiled kid to finish a pointless tantrum.

It could easily be thought of as 'cold', and if you're after histrionics or high emotion from movies, it might not be for you. That might explain the less than stellar box office performance, where film aficionados are more likely to love it than casual moviegoers. If you're one of the former then The Master is the best performance and directorial films of the year.

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