A sex-obsessed drifter meets a charismatic cult leader and embarks on a new life in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.
Or does he? There is little to suggest that Freddie Quells (Joaquin Phoenix) becomes a doe-eyed disciple of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) aka The Master or that he is taken in by his rhetoric particularly when Dodd’s own son observes “He’s making all this up as he goes along.”
In the years after the Second World War, America was seeking a new direction and Anderson suggests that men like Dodd offered a fresh perspective. But dense speeches about time travel, hypnosis therapy and interview sessions that probe an individual’s secrets don’t seem to provide an answer.
And when a sceptic questions too closely, he is given short shrift by Dodd, whose invective belies his image, and Quells, who responds with violence.
The Master is a film built on the plausibility of Hoffman and the gullibility of Phoenix. Amy Adams as Hoffman’s wife is a believer and a sceptic: a key scene features her warning Hoffman not to allow his philandering to poison their image.
Hoffman gives a performance of Wellesian proportions as the charlatan whose background is mysterious and who Anderson prefers not to detail. Like Phoenix, to whom he is drawn, he is an enigma. And in Phoenix he has a pet project: an empty vessel. The Master fills him up.
The film succeeds largely thanks to the chemistry between Hoffman and Phoenix. One is charming, manipulative and duplicitous. The other is brutish, coarse and mercenary. Both are sociopaths feeding cannibalistically off the other. And they are extraordinary.
A loner who self-medicates himself with an alarming array of moonshine concoctions, Phoenix hallucinates at a party and sees all the females gazing adoringly at Hoffman. They are naked. Anderson’s inference is clear: Freddie sees through the acolytes but not the Master. He wants to but he’s weak. But he suspects.
Adams brings a quietly sinister patina to her pregnant wife. She’s a Lady Macbeth for 1950s America. She believes. And nothing will stand in her way