As are other of his films (“There Will Be Blood,” “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia”), it is a horror movie about an abusive/obsessive father-son, teacherpupil, shepherd-sheep, Abraham- Isaac relationship.
Always fascinating at 2 hours and 17 minutes, “The Master” is structurally unfocussed, but hurling anxiety squeezing, over-the-top performances into your face and soul.
Particularly hard to take is Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a deeply troubled World War II veteran, whose psychic pain is sweet fodder for New Wave religious charlatan Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a thinly-veiled version of Church of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard.
The date is 1950, and Anderson captures the era’s look and feel to perfection, even the waxed family photos that Freddie takes professionally at a department store.
Also caught is the post-traumatic stress afflicting many servicemen returning from combat. Freddie embodies it, erupting in fierce bouts of temper and sexual frustration. Besides photography, he has another skill that he has picked up aboard a battleship: making moonshine from paint thinner, torpedo fuel, and anything else he can get his hands on.
Freddie finds himself under his own toxic influence on a yacht in San Francisco Bay, which appears to be under the command of Dodd. Speaking in the greatest of grandiloquence, Lancaster Dodd presents himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher,” but above all, “a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man.”
What he really is is a mesmerist and master showman. Hoffman plays him with more than a touch of Orson Welles.
Sniffing out weakness, the Master declares Freddie to be his “guinea pig and protégé.” He then commences to “process” the young man, firing questions at him that twist his disturbed psyche like a pretzel.
The expressive Phoenix face and physique contort to a point almost too painful to watch.
And this is just the beginning. By the movie’s end, Phoenix/Freddie looks like he’s been run over by a bus. As for Dodd, he builds his following, preaching that the road to “the mind’s inherent state of perfect” is traveled in hypnotic trances to unearth hidden trauma in past lives, “maybe as far back as a trillion years.” Along the way are found the cures for war, poverty and cancer.
The film meanders through turbulence and trying times as followers fluctuate, arrests are made and Dodd revises his Bible, called, “The Cause.” A big change: “remembering” past lives is now “imagining” them. This throws some of the faithful.
One thing, however, remains as steady as the North Star: People will believe anything, if well sold.
Even if the salesman is a monster.