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The Master movie poster

The Master: Movie Review

Genre: Drama
Rated: R
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Laura Dern
Released by: The Weinstein Company and Annapurna Pictures

In Short: This languid cinematic look at how a cult is born is filled with fine performances, but as it plods slowly along it ultimately doesn't make anyone a believer.

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Head Down the Religious Rabbit Hole with "The Master"

In Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master," the writer-director known for "Boogie Nights" and "There Will Be Blood" has come up with a thinly veiled take on author L. Ron Hubbard's invention of Scientology back in the early 1950s. Of course, "The Master" is not specifically about him, but the parallels to Hubbard's rise to cult-leader status make it pretty obvious that the movie is Anderson's vision of the man who created his own religion.

The film actually centers on Freddie Quell, a Navy seaman (and overall creepy guy) whose World War II experiences have piled on top of his earlier unhappy life before the war and left him slightly unhinged. As played by Joaquin Phoenix – in a performance that is sure to win him accolades during awards season – he's a squinty, scrawny, sexually obsessed, curled-into-himself kind of guy who survives on homemade moonshine and unfiltered cigarettes.

Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

He's on a road straight to hell until he inadvertently meets Lancaster Dodd, "the master" (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), an author who has formed his own cult religion and is now leading a flock made up of his family and followers. As the two men form a very weird bond of friendship, Freddie embraces the new religion – and becomes its enforcer as well. But there's still a screw loose there.

Anderson's movie is beautifully shot, and certainly evocative of the time, when the zeitgeist in post-war America was a mix of heady optimism combined with a search for the meaning of life after the trauma of years of worldwide conflict. And initially, the film is very engaging, but as it drags on and on (it runs for 137 minutes, but feels more like three hours), it devolves into interminable scenes of psychological manipulation between the two men, all watched by a crowd of mostly silent believers. Problem is, there's been nothing along the way to make us, the moviegoer, believe in this cult, so sitting through the repetitive minutiae of the master's psychological manipulation of his followers is simply boring.

In fact, it is impossible to be drawn into believing, for even Dodd's son is a skeptic and Anderson makes it clear that there's a strong element of the con man in the master's character. So by the time Freddie feels like running away, so do we.

Kudos go to Amy Adams for her performance as Dodd's second wife, who is as intent on controlling her husband as he is the masses; and to Hoffman, who gives an appropriately smarmy turn as the cult leader. But "The Master" is really Joaquin Phoenix's film; his brilliant take on a clearly insane man is one you will never forget. But you won't like him for a moment.


By Jenny Peters


(Updated: 09/26/12 CT)

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