For almost two decades, director Paul Thomas Anderson has been behind the camera, producing one resonant film after another.
Boogie Nights. Magnolia. Punch-Drunk Love. There Will Be Blood. These are the titles to the films that comprise Anderson’s best-known works. He has only directed six movies in his career.
Anderson’s latest, The Master, is a film whose title effectively acts as a two-word retrospective on the director’s career.
The film, itself, is also a brilliant exploration of religion, anger, post-war trauma and the human mind, rendered for the screen with careful guidance and powerful acting from its two stars.
In The Master, art house stalwart and frequent Anderson collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays Lancaster Dodd, a character who draws superficial comparisons to L. Ron Hubbard, the real-life conceiver of Scientology.
Put simply, Dodd is a man of great charisma, capable of exercising tremendous control. He uses these abilities in the development of his religion, “The Cause.”
Hoffman’s portrayal is offered in stark contrast to Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell, an alcoholic veteran of the Second World War.
Quell is as incapable of controlling his addictions as he is his rage, but in him Dodd finds a worthwhile lieutenant — a hand to do his bidding.
One of the apparent ideas of the film is to explore the appeal that religion can have for desperate men, and in this it succeeds. Quell begins the film lost and without cause, and it is astonishing how quickly “The Cause” infiltrates and comes to pervade every aspect of his life.
Meanwhile, Hoffman channels something that borders on sinister in his portrayal of Dodd, though never quite reaches that fever pitch.
The dynamic between Dodd and Quell as the film’s plot develops shifts a number of times, forcing the stalwart Dodd to continously sacrifice control, and the often insane Quell to struggle with some degree of balance.
It is this exploration of character, and the tension created as a result thereof, that makes the film so fascinating — not unlike past Anderson outings, this is a serious movie for serious people, not one to be watched on a whim or without commitment to the plot’s nuances.
It is here, perhaps, that the film finds it’s primary shortfall: at almost 2 1/2 hours, The Master is an undertaking not to be ventured lightly.
But if the viewer engages the film with an open mind and the time and attention to devote to it, the result is, perhaps, one of the most richly rewarding experiences in modern cinema.