'The Master' Toronto Review: There Will Be Scientology (and Riveting Performances)

'The Master' Toronto Review: There Will Be Scientology (and Riveting Performances)

Sep 11, 2012

Our souls are not our own. So who, then, can we trust with our most valuable possession?
 
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is the second film at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (Cloud Atlas being the other) to deal with such far-reaching concepts as the afterlife, multiple existences and the genuine nature of man. Where the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer arrive at a love-centric conclusion for Cloud, however, Anderson’s Master explores the fortitude of a damaged individual’s faith by following a difficult course plagued by doubt, dissention, self-loathing, manipulation and inevitable disappointment. 
 
The Master is thought-provoking, which you might have expected. There are two distinct fart references. This you might not have expected.
 
This is the first of many articles I’ll likely write about The Master, for trying to digest the whole of Anderson’s thesis so shortly after one screening is foolish. Like his past works, PTA’s latest is a character-driven exploration wrapped around a barebones narrative, but tangible discussions about religion, spirituality, integrity, faith and hope are there for the taking. As he did in both There Will Be Blood and the exquisite Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson writes two sharply defined personalities and lets them debate massive issues as we watch, engage and – later – debate.   
 
We meet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) on a beach at the end of World War II. Like many young soldiers wrestling with the demons of combat, he’s a slave to his urges. To quote Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the holy man who eventually counsels Freddie, this drifter has “wandered from the proper path.” He behaves like an animal, and this is a fault of human nature that Dodd believes he can cure. 
 
Dodd is the master of the title, the confident head of a curious religious cult called the Cause that’s probably meant to be Scientology, despite what Anderson has said about his film in the weeks leading up to its release. The motivational jargon spewed by Dodd is generic enough to be inconsequential. His own son (Jesse Plemons) believes his father makes his shit up as he goes along. When devout follower Hellen (Laura Dern) questions Dodd on a word change in his second sacred text, Dodd blows up at her with no real explanation for his sudden shift in thought. The Cause is fluid, even if the followers think it's set in stone. 
 
Yet one person buying into Lancaster’s system is Freddie, and the process by which his brain gets properly washed permits The Master to debate opposing schools of thought: Contemplation versus Action; Reason versus Impulse. 
 
Which side does PTA believe in? I don’t know if we can tell by watching The Master. The film doesn’t take a clear stance (at least, not one I picked up on first glance). Instead, it revels in Lancaster’s deliberate process to break Freddie’s will. The fact that Dodd’s unable to realize that the war beat him to it is strange. But to Dodd – and to Dodd’s ego – Freddie is the ultimate challenge, holding the promise of the ultimate reward. 
 
The Master is never better than when Phoenix and Hoffman are going toe-to-toe. Their first interrogation session cracks the film’s steely façade and lets uncomfortable honesty bleed in. Their hostile confrontation in parallel prison cells will be the scene that earns them both Oscar nods. But my favorite – the film’s most telling scene – occurs late in the film, when Dodd’s about to introduce his second book of “wisdom.” Phoenix’s expressive face registers such hope that his savior might have the answers to life’s burning questions. And that face subtly switches to disgust when he realizes that the man he’s placed on a pedestal has nothing relevant to say. 
 
The Master, on the flip side, has plenty to say. It’s an actor’s showcase that’s impeccably shot and beautifully projected on 70mm (where available). It’s a film student’s dream, an audience’s challenge, and a worthy addition to PTA’s formidable canon on the flaws of mankind. I assure we’ll be discussing its merits for years to come. 
  
 

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