Hypnotic ‘Master’piece explores religious cults

By Sam Flancher

The existential void ushered in by World War II has been well-represented by artists in the last century. This is the world of the atom bomb, the Holocaust and innumerable, previously unimaginable terrors brought on by what most people viewed as a just war.

It is within this historical framework that Paul Thomas Anderson offers up “The Master,” the long-anticipated follow-up to his 2007 masterpiece, “There Will Be Blood.” Equal to its predecessor in both ambition and scope, “The Master” is an inspired treatise on a modern man’s quest for fulfillment within the context of a newly defined

American Dream.

The film follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a soldier returning home after WWII and chronicles his search to fill the void left by the destruction of war. Quell finds himself employed by Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the ringleader of a fledgling philosophical religious movement called The Cause. He takes Quell under his wing and the men quickly form an intimate, mutually destructive servant/master relationship as the film explores the human need to form complex religious systems to satisfy

spiritual emptiness.

The inner workings and inception of The Cause allude in no small way to the real life history of the Church of Scientology. Both movements find their genesis in works of fiction penned by their leaders, and the cult of personality surrounding Dodd is not unlike that associated with L. Ron Hubbard. The direct parallel adds a sense of immediacy to the film, reminding us that the existential concerns of post-WWII America have not faded; they continue to dominate our social and religious

constructions today.

Phoenix portrays his deranged character with an intense physical urgency. Hoffman is equally dominant on screen, injecting every frame with Dodd’s austere psychosis. The scenes between the two characters are the film’s best moments, as Anderson allows his actors freedom to play off one another. Amy Adams also impresses as Peggy Dodd, Lancaster’s repressed wife. The subtlety she brings to her performance provides a balance to the eccentric brilliance of Hoffman and Phoenix.

Visually, the film is expectably astonishing. Shot in 70 mm, Anderson displays his usual keen eye for color, composition and camera movement. Each new insight is complemented by a visual revelation, adding yet another layer of subtext to each scene.

Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood moves the film along a score that both drives and meanders when the moment calls for it. The music of

“The Master” paces the entire film, propelling the film’s events forward. There is a balance among the visuals, performances and music, and all act as moving parts to form a mesmerizing film of

engrossing depth.

The brilliance of “The Master” reaffirms Anderson’s place among today’s greatest directors. His ability to delve deep into the psychology of his characters while simultaneously examining the immense complexity of modern social constructions is unparalleled in modern American cinema.

“The Master” opened in theaters on Sept. 14.