The release of “The Master” officially kicks off Oscar season. It sets the bar high with powerhouse performances from leading actors Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The story follows Freddie (Phoenix), an alcoholic World War II veteran struggling to find his place after the war. One night, he drunkenly wanders onto a ship captained by Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a self-proclaimed guru and the leader of a cult-like group called The Cause, whose members desire to get humanity back to “perfection.” To do this, they sit around tables listening to recordings of Dodd’s gospel and watch him perform unconventional therapy sessions on various members. At one point, Dodd forces Freddie to walk from one side of a room to another, describing what he feels when he touches a wall on either side.
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has added another thematically complex work of art to his impressive resume. As with his past films — “There Will Be Blood” and “Boogie Nights” — “The Master” challenges audiences with its intellectual and substantial subject matter.
The film seems to be loosely based on the beginnings of Scientology, and Lancaster Dodd resembles L. Ron Hubbard. Hoffman successfully departs from his gravelly-voiced and self-loathing characters to play a charismatic leader. The most captivating scenes are between Phoenix and Hoffman, particularly Freddie’s first therapy session when he finally opens up about a lost love from his past.
Phoenix gives a commanding performance, hunching his back in an awkward posture and speaking with a constant drunken slur. The connections his character forms are purely physical, having sex with multiple women, even one he molds out of sand on the beach in the opening scene. Freddie is violent and perverted, yet Phoenix is able to humanize him. Behind the tough facade, Phoenix conveys a subtle loneliness and pain.
With its heavy themes, “The Master” takes audiences on a difficult but rewarding journey, proving the cast to be masters of their craft.
Overall rating: 3 stars
‘The Master’ shines with its brilliant cast and intelligent story.