Bold, beautiful, perplexing: “The Master”

October 8, 2012

from The Raleigh News & Observer

Advance word on “The Master,” the new film from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, suggested the script was the thinly veiled story of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology.

ImageTurns out that’s not quite the case. The story of charismatic 1940s cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his drunken disciple Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) clearly makes reference to Scientology. But “The Master” is painting in much broader strokes.

The film opens with damaged World War II veteran Freddie spiraling downward after his traumatic tour of duty. Freddie’s on a suicide trip, death-by-alcohol style, and he bottoms out through a series of stateside jobs, finally winding up as a migrant field hand.

After passing out on a dockside yacht, Freddie makes the acquaintance of the ship’s owner, Lancaster Dodd, leader of the quasi-religious self-help movement known as The Cause. As played by Hoffman, Dodd combines the delusional grandiosity of a despot with the huckster charm of a luxury-car salesman. “I do many, many things,” Dodd tells Freddie. “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher ….”

Dodd is immediately fascinated with Freddie and takes him on as a kind of pet project. He also appreciates Freddie’s ability to mix high-octane cocktails out of whatever is handy – mouthwash, chemicals, jet fuel.

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