Paul Thomas Anderson’s fascination with morally ambivalent characters is never more apparent than in "The Master".
As played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lancaster Dodd is a charismatic leader of a feel-good Scientology-like cult, oozing larger-than-life expansiveness as he develops methods for cleansing tortured souls by exorcising previous incarnations that caused the damage in the first place. When one such soul presents himself to Dodd in the person of Freddie Quell (a reliably startling Joaquin Phoenix), the master latches onto the burned-out alcoholic veteran, luring him with carrot promises of redemption, while Dodd’s harpy of a wife (Amy Adams) beats him with the stick of insufficient commitment to ‘the Cause’.
In keeping with the gentility of its beautifully rendered, post-WWII settings in the homes of rich acolytes, Anderson presents Dodd as a genial deceiver. Seymour is excellent as an opportunist of redeeming affability, whose interest in others masks a greater interest in exerting power over them. Phoenix’s live wire of a performance as a physically driven character learning to read his demons is also astonishing.
However, even accepting persuasion as Dodd’s modus operandi, too many extended dialogues talk this movie into a bit of a corner and an ambivalent ending. If this was Anderson’s intention, his decision to follow through is courageous. If nothing else, it shows, as this year’s Oscars will hopefully confirm, that indictment is as problematic as correction.
The Master | Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (USA 2012) with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams. Starts February 21