Reviewed by Kevin Finnerty
“He’s making all this up as he goes along. You don’t see that?,” asks Val Dodd (Jesse Plemons) to wayward drifter Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who has become the newest disciple to follow Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his teachings in the dramatic film, The Master.
After serving in World War II and finding it incredibly difficult to settle down and build a life for himself, Freddie Quell drifts from town to town and works all kinds of different jobs until he meets Lancaster Dodd. Dodd claims to be many things, a doctor, philosopher, a writer, and at present the leader and founder of a new faith-based organization known as “The Cause”.
Finding himself drawn to the charismatic Dodd and yearning for his approval, Quell quickly becomes one of his right-hand men and tries to shape himself into the perfect follower by putting himself through hours upon hours of monotonous and pointless exercises. But as time passes and Quell experiences more and more of Lancaster Dodd’s teachings and beliefs, he begins to question the complete truth of Dodd and The Cause.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and inspired by the early life and career of L.Ron Hubbard, The Master is a painfully slow drama which benefits greatly from a memorable performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the captivating, engaging leader of the organization. It’s a strong performance that should be remembered during Oscar nominations. Amy Adams gives a solid performance as Dodd’s loyal and dedicated wife Peggy, and Joaquin Phoenix is extremely effective as Quell, the drifter in search of a home and some sort of meaning in his life.
It’s a shame that the cast’s performances aren’t in a better movie. A major flaw with the film is that it never takes the audience behind-the-curtain of Dodd himself. It’s a surface, glossy and empty presentation of a man who is just beginning to start his own cult (or if you prefer: belief system), but doesn’t go much deeper than just below the surface of the façade the man puts on to pull others close to him and gain their trust. The filmmaker only gives fleeting moments of verbal outbursts and dirty looks when Dodd’s beliefs or life is questioned by the authorities or non-believers. What’s missing is Dodd’s true motivation for his actions.
The pace of the film is tedious. It crawls along, taking over 30 minutes before the audience is ever introduced to Dodd and his followers. There is also too much focus through the entire film on Phoenix’s character, Quell, who really is nothing more than a lost, angry, uninteresting and unlikeable soul who keeps detracting the focus and drama away from Hoffman’s character who the film feels like it should have been about.
Tiresome and overlong, The Master is an uninteresting bore of a film which can not be saved by a solid cast and a very strong performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The Master is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language.