P.T. Anderson is not in the business of making easy films. His movies are challenging, jarring and sometimes a tad impersonal. But the art that makes us the most uncomfortable is often the art that makes us ask the right questions.
The Master is as uncomfortable a film as Anderson has made. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally unstable drifter running from his past. He stows away on Lancaster Dodd’s (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) boat, a man who is the leader of a cult called The Cause.
Much has been made of the similarities between The Cause and Scientology. Those of you expecting a searing indictment of the latter are better off checking out one of the many documentaries that exist on the subject. This film is not really about exposing Scientology. It’s about what we believe to be real.
Hoffman is amazing at playing the enigmatic Dodd. Midway through the film his son says, “you realize he’s making it all up as he goes along, right?” But it’s not clear that’s even the case. How committed is a man who buries his secrets in the desert? It’s a question that Anderson is much more interested in addressing than that of whether Dodd’s fantasy religion is real.
Freddie Quell is equally full of questions. He’s on the opposite side of the spectrum of Dodd, who is even handed in his own brand of delusion, Quell is the raging id, drinking chemicals and fighting and screwing his way across America. Phoenix is more than an actor in this role; he is Freddie Quell. He is a limping, hunchbacked, sinister man. But Anderson isn’t afraid of showing this ugly man on screen. In fact, by the end of the film, you can’t help feel some empathy, if not sympathy, for the damaged human Phoenix portrays.
There’s one scene where Quell and Dodd face off over a series of “processing” questions– a riff on Scientology’s practice of auditing church members for potential sins. It’s a tense, masterfully shot scene between two master actors. You can practically see critics throwing Oscars at them (though not literally as that would hurt a lot).
Anderson shoots the film so perfectly that each frame could be a beautifully captured still photograph. On it’s own it could seem clinically removed from the subject at hand, but in Anderson’s hands it serves to juxtapose the simmering characters, each who are at different levels of belief in The Cause.
Don’t expect to walk out of The Master feeling like you have all the answers. There are no judgments to be found here. But you will likely find yourself with more than one question.