The Master--which explores the lure and vagaries of power and free will--excises veins of American complexity rarely seen since the plays of Arthur Miller. Screenwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson's modern masterpiece depicts an early 1950s America, still unable to measure its post-war trauma, and finds two lost souls: one thirsty for salvation and another drunk with delusion.
Already shrouded in controversy before its North American premiere, The Master has been shackled to a question that I heard repeatedly prior to its screening at the Toronto International Film Festival: Is the movie's title character based on L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology?
The answer, not unlike the film, is complicated. I've known many devout followers of Scientology and I can say with no reservation that fictional "master" Lancaster Dodd's teachings bear a close comparison to Hubbard's. However, deep into the end credits of The Master, I read the following caveat:
"The story and its characters are fictional and the events and actions portrayed do not reflect the actions of any movement or any living or deceased individuals."
After wrestling with the "is it or isn't it" debate, I resigned to bask in The Master's cinematic radiance: a warm glow here, a blistering burn there. To obsess over such delineation would be to dismiss the pleasure of watching a masterwork of drama.
The film's pillars are the two best male performances of any movie this year: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Dodd and Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell. Each actor is singular in his achievement, yet it's impossible to consider one without the other. If there's any justice in Hollywood, Hoffman and Phoenix will be nominated as Oscar's first quinella for Best Actor.
Phoenix, an unnerving talent of skill (I Walk The Line) and cockamamie (I'm Still Here) portrays Quell, a veteran still at war with himself. After Quell is abused as a child, World War II wreaks havoc on what little there was left of his life force. As an adult, he sulks through life like a fugitive, though no one is ever chasing him. When he quite literally stumbles (he's often stone drunk) into a man who will become his master, Quell senses that he has been found and ultimately laid bare.
And Hoffman's Dodd is all too eager to oblige, using Quell as a test subject for pseudo-psychological interrogation in order to break his spirit. But when his chicanery has done its damage, Dodd quickly fills the soul's void with enigmatic refuse.
Amy Adams is also spellbinding as Dodd's wife. Instead of leaning on a stereotypical performance as a cult leader's spouse, Adams plays Peggy Dodd as a measured puppeteer.
"What color are my eyes?" Peggy asks sweetly as she is nose-to-nose with Quell.
"Green," Quell mumbles.
"Turn them black," she whispers.
Maybe it was special effects, but I could swear I saw her eyes turn to coal. I had to remind myself to breathe again.
The Master, told with maturity and mastery, is not to be missed.