Review: The Master

The last time Joaquin Phoenix was on screen he looked a right state – fat, bearded and attempting to rap in performance art project I'm Still Here. In his first proper acting role in four years there are times when he looks even worse.

Playing Freddie Quell, a violent, heavy drinking ex-soldier he is also absolutely extraordinary, like nothing you've quite seen before.

Quell is a rudimentary expression of humanity, concerned solely with quenching his appetites.

The early scenes at the very end of the war in the Pacific look like something cut from The Thin Red Line. Rotating back to the civilian world, he can't fit in until in 1950 he chances upon Lancaster Dodds (Philip Seymour Hoffman, similarly compelling), an L. Ron Hubbard figure pushing a cult-style doctrine called The Cause.

His followers grow in number in drawing rooms across America and Lancaster is delighted to welcome the alcoholic war veteran into the fold as his 'guinea pig and protege', despite the warnings of his wife Peggy (Amy Adams).

Peggy recognises Freddie as a damaged and emotionally volatile soul and tries to curb his dangerous impulses. However, that primal rage which percolates inside Freddie proves useful for Lancaster as he encounters resistance to his argument and even scorn from his own son (Jesse Plemons).

The film-makers' protests that the film isn't about Scientology aren't entirely disingenuous. The figure of Dodds and his form of Processing wouldn't make a bit of sense without Hubbard and Dianetics as reference points but the film is not a debunking or expose of Scientology, which dramatically may be a problem.

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Viewers' expectation is that through Quell, Dodds will be revealed to us but this is not the case. The film is not concerned with The Cause or Processing; it is about the force pulling Quell and Dodds together.

The Master is a box of wonders, a cryptic puzzle, containing two of the finest performances you'll see all year, yet you may find it all oddly muted, inconsequential.


Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour hoffman, Amy Adams, Ambyr Childers and Laura Dern

Length: 143 mins