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“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing,
but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
–Jesus Christ, The Holy Bible, King James version, Book of St. Matthew – Ch. 7:15

It must be great to fall back on your faith.

I’m not kidding; I’ve always had a bit of envy for those who can dedicate themselves to their beliefs wholeheartedly. As a logical – and thereby “skeptical” – person who’s been student to many faiths and belief systems, I’m more interested in the mythologies associated with said systems. As such, I often put up barriers when I suspect someone from one such faith is making an attempt to convert me. Tell me your faith’s most cherished parables, fine. Tell me that the only way to hear those stories is to dedicate myself to your cause or nothin’ doin’, then thank you but no. As an American, I’ll support your right to your beliefs so long as they remain your beliefs.

And yet with my cold skepticism comes the inevitable feeling of emptiness during my lowest moments. I’ve already gone into detail about my struggle with depression, a battle made no easier by the fact that I tend to isolate myself from others when I’m at my worst. These are the moments when one looks to a higher power for guidance. But as I subscribe to no higher power, I have nothing on which to fall back.

Freddie Sutton (Joaquin Phoenix) of The Master is also someone who drifts through life without any sense of purpose. It’s those sort of people who find the greatest sense of home and community in faith; and – oh boy – has Freddy found a faith!

We first meet Freddy as a hard-drinkin’ Navy man in the closing days of WWII. So in love is he with fine spirits that he not only knows how to cook them up using the most unlikely of ingredients (mouthwash and paint thinner are common additives) but he also knows the best places to hide them: like inside a torpedo. The only vice matching his appetite for liquor is his equally insatiable appetite for sex.

Upon being discharged at the end of the war, he becomes a family photographer in a department store. This only lasts for so long until his third vice, his appetite for destruction, has him costs him the job. Not that he seems to care. He reacts to this by getting severely drunk and stumbling onto a yacht. When he wakes up the next morning, he finds that he’s the guest of the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife Mary Sue (Amy Adams). Their eldest daughter is getting married on the yacht and they warmly welcome Freddy to attend.

Lancaster, a man claiming to be of no less than seven professions (including “author, doctor, nuclear physicist”), the creator of a self-help process he calls “The Cause” – for which he has written a massive book of the same name. The process involves having followers communicate with their “past lives” in the hopes of improving their current lives. So taken are people with the perceived improvements that Dodd finds himself at the head of what looks to become a full-blown movement. And Freddy finds himself in a new home where he might be entirely welcome.

Let’s get this out of the way first: this is not a film about Scientology or L. Ron Hubbard. Or rather, this film is no more about those subjects than Citizen Kane was about the life of William Randolph Hurst, and even that explanation seems inaccurate. The central character is Freddy, a character who – for all intents and purposes – is fictional. Admittedly the parallels between Dodd and Hubbard are too strong to ignore (the belief system that sounds like a bad sci-fi plot, the unlicenced medical practices, the appeal to the rich for their potentially endless financial contributions, etc.) and it’s easy to see why the Scientology higher-ups have launched a smear campaign against this film.

Nevertheless, the central focus of this film is not the belief, it’s the believer: Freddy. It’s about being so lost in life that some – nay, any – form of solid direction presents itself, one is likely to grab it with both arms and not let get. Incidentally, I was reminded of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and the book on which it was based. Like this film, that story is one of an unruly and crime-prone young man finally finding some peace within a controversial belief system. Said young man winds up changing the system just as much as it has changed him.

I can tell you now that many people will walk out of the film disappointed. The characters don’t really have arcs, so to speak – at the end they change very little from the people they were at the beginning. There are a great many stretches where there is no dialogue. And anyone expecting some anti-Scientology screed might as well just try to find a bootleg copy of Brett Hanover’s The Bridge (good luck with that). If, however, you’re looking for a powerfully acted and beautifully filmed motion picture about one man briefly finding purpose in his life, then you’ve got the right film.

I had the pleasure of seeing the film in 70mm at The Castro movie palace in San Francisco on the 21st of August. (I would later learn that director Paul Thomas Anderson was in attendance with wife Maya Rudolph. That I didn’t know that makes me kick myself.) To shoot with such high quality celluloid – the film was shot on Pavasion 65 HR cameras – was an inspired choice, particularly in the digital era. Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malamaire, Jr. show an influence of Terence Malick in there wide-yet-intimate imagery. The shots aren’t composed to be postcards, they’re just proof of what happens when film-makers actually care about what they’re shooting.

However, this can make the film feel as if it’s dragging its feet at times – a criticism also thrown at There Will Be Blood. I love that Anderson is willing to linger a bit – in contrast to the fast-cutting style of his contemporaries – but even Malick knows the importance of pacing when you bother to add a story. Not a major problem, but definitely noticeable at times.

But this is a film that lives or dies by its performances, and the three leads are fantastic.

Let me start by highlighting a performance that hasn’t been promoted as much as the two male leads, but I think is the one that steals the show: Amy Adams as Mary Sue Dodd. Befitting a well-mannered woman of her time, Mary Sue is the perfect smiling housewife during her husband’s public appearances. Behind closed doors, however, she proves to be something of a Lady MacBeth figure who could easily be seen as “the real power behind the throne”. Her public façade of being meek belies a woman who has her husband by the balls (literally, at one point). She makes decisions that he won’t, she says things that he can’t – and Adams performs the role with subdued perfection.

Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddy Sutton is a 12-year-old boy in a man’s body. Every time he drinks seems to be his first; his attitude toward sex is laughably juvenile (an early scene sees him dry-humping the figure of a woman a fellow seaman shaped from sand; this leads to a scene of him vigorously masturbating in the sea); when he can’t win an argument, he lashes out physically; he mumbles every word from the left side of his mouth; and when he talks to authority figures, he does so as if he’s been sent to the principal’s office. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Joaquin Phoenix, but always found him a competent actor. This is by far the best work he’s ever done. For those who doubt his career could recover from the publicity stunt of I’m Still Here, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

And finally, there’s Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd. If the ability to play to the crowd is more important than sharing a good idea, then it’s no wonder that Dodd has so many followers – the man knows exactly how to create a cult of personality. He’s spent just as much time practicing answers for skeptics as he has working on “The Cause”. Only when skeptics refuse to back down does his internal anger rise to the surface. Look, in my opinion Hoffman hasn’t put in a bad performance since My Boyfriend’s Back, so praising him here would just be redundant.

Like There Will Be Blood before it, The Master is a film that doesn’t spoon-feed its audience and may require more than one viewing to fully process. Writing this as a first impression from someone who can sympathise with the protagonist’s journey, it certainly held my attention through most of its two-hour running time. A pity that a quiet, contemplative film like this is considered “brave film-making” in today’s multiplex arena.

Grade:             A-

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