“Good science allows room for more than one opinion. Otherwise what you have is only the will of one man. It’s a cult.” It’s this line that’s uttered about a quarter of the way through the stunning new film The Master which lets you know that we are, in fact, in Oscar territory. Academy voters love biopics (or wannabe biopics) inspired by real life characters and events that both thrill and chill us, and nothing seems as chilling these days as the Church of Scientology. With daily news reports emerging that the world’s most famous Scientologist Tom Cruise actually “auditioned” young actresses to be his wife before honing in on Katie Holmes for what we can only imagine was a “bizarre” (and that’s putting it mildly) marital experience, the recent admission by director Paul Thomas Anderson that the main cult leader character in The Master played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman is modeled on L. Ron Hubbard (founder of Scientology and dianetics), is something that has more relevance to the modern world than most may want to believe. The movie asks, in its fringe moments, when and why pseudo-philosophical and religious movements are born: are cults of personality like those of the Scientologists and the Moonies purely one man’s desire to be aggrandized above his gullible followers? Or can the same elements be traced to mainstream faiths like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and even Taoism? Even being a “fan” of Oprah’s invites or demands elements of worship. Think about it.
The movie starts to answer this question with the character of Freddie (Joaquine Phoenix) who is battered and bruised by WWII but who emerges with only the desire to party hard and inhale illegal substances at every corner. He has no purpose other than to literally have no purpose. It’s a strange way to exist, but one that seems not entirely stultifying. When he happens upon the charming and manipulative Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), he becomes fast friends with both as they promise him that it’s okay not to be everyone’s idea of a “good man”. He need not apologize for who and what he is because there is nothing more glorious than living on one’s own terms . . . except, of course, living on Dodd’s terms because he can offer salvation and enlightenment of which no other living man knows. A relationship develops that goes from close friendship to master and servant and then ultimately divine being and base slave. The movie, not satisfied with simply observing, makes judgments on both the characters of Dodd and Freddie, saying that the weakest among us are often the most predatory, while the most self-assured are but a mirror’s distance from the shattering of their own reality. Which are you? Which would rather be?
There is much to think about in the movie, especially during its thrilling first half, and not enough can be said of its performances. Both Phoneix and Hoffman are transcendent in their roles. No matter what you may think of Phoenix as a human being, his ability to inhabit a broken man is unparalleled in modern cinema. Adams also does justice to her part by showing that Peggy is much more than a willing dupe of her powerful husband. She can be just as shrewd and manipulative as Dodd can, only she is the master of his servants, if not of herself. A lot of foolish comparisons will be made between The Master and Anderson’s last film, the masterful There Will Be Blood, but such comparisons are odious. Both movies are about lost and ambitious men trying to find homes in eras and towns that reject them wholeheartedly. But where one demands his pound of flesh, the other offers up his entire craven soul. In the end, you may not know who is the master and who is the slave.View All Photos ›