With Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Ambyr Childers. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language. 137 minutes.
By now we should know better than to go to a Paul Thomas Anderson film for the plot. The filmmaker whose works include “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and “There Will Be Blood,” has plenty of incident. Things happen. Yet that’s not where his interests are.
Anderson is instead interested in character, particularly larger-than-life characters and those who get caught up in their own whirlwind. In THE MASTER, the focus is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), referred to as ‘The Master’ by his family and those who have joined his movement known simply as “The Cause.” Clearly modeled on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, Anderson has insisted that it is not about them and, in a sense, he is correct. Dodd is no more Hubbard than Charles Foster Kane was William Randolph Hearst. Like Orson Welles before him, Anderson has simply lifted some facts and grafted them onto his fictional story, in this case about Dodd’s relationship with the troubled Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix).
We enter the Cause with Quell, an alcoholic World War II veteran who is drifting from job to job in 1950 when he crashes a party on a private yacht and passes out. When he comes to, he’s not under arrest. Instead, he is welcomed by the party’s host, Dodd, who takes a shine to the younger man, and brings him into the Cause. As incidents pile up – with enough unfinished plots to fuel several movies – we see how smoothly Dodd seduces his followers. When he talks to Quell, he gives the troubled man his undivided attention. It is the sort of attention and support he has never received.
In terms of story, Anderson leaves much to be desired. We never learn much about Dodd’s background or how he came to lead this mysterious Cause. Indeed, it’s hard to know if he truly believes in it himself. His family, including his wife (Amy Adams), are clearly committed, although his newly-married daughter (Ambyr Childers) seems to have a wandering eye for Quell. Yet when one of his chief devotees (Laura Dern in what amounts to a cameo) points out that he’s made a fundamental change in his program in his second book, Dodd’s overreaction make you wonder if this was simply a mistake that he’s now unable to admit. By film’s end you will have learned surprisingly little about the Cause or what motivates Dodd.
The reason to see the film is Anderson’s compelling sense of visual style and his equally compelling sense of character. Hoffman gives one of the year’s best performances as the charismatic leader, making it clear why he would be able to gather followers. Whether in one on one scenes or doing a flamboyant song and dance, he makes you want to believe in Dodd even if the character doesn’t believe in himself. Phoenix’s loner is also complex. At times loathsome and irresponsible, he responds to something in Dodd and we wait to see where it leads him. In one scene they are in adjoining jail cells. The two actors go for broke in getting at the truth of the characters and their odd relationship. It is some of the finest acting you’ll see on screen this year.
If Anderson can ever figure out how to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, cutting out long scenes that go nowhere, he might make a really great film. In the meantime, as with “The Master,” he continues to make quite interesting ones with actors eager to rise to the challenges he sets for them.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released in January 2013. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.