The Master

DRAMA; 2hr 17min

STARRING: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams

Master and commander: Hoffman (front) and Phoenix

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson introduces alcoholic sailor Freddie Quell (Phoenix) in telling episodes that reveal him as profoundly damaged goods, scarred by active service in World War II. For his part, Phoenix puts Quell out there in a fritzing tangle of severed nerves. It could be said that Quell is ripe for the cultist taking, and when he encounters self-described “writer, doctor, philosopher” Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), whose followers, known as The Cause, revere him as The Master, Quell falls hard. Why not? With his inexorable wife (Adams) by his side, snake-oil salesman Dodd is an expansive seducer and the life of any party, whose time-travel hypnosis therapy is nonetheless a misfit’s goldmine.


It could also be said that mind control preys most upon the needy and the weak, but Anderson is more cryptic and diffuse than condemning, suggesting that for lost soul Quell, The Cause offers some semblance of belonging and that charlatan Dodd needs Quell as much as Quell needs him. The unnerving ambiguity of that perspective and the ribbon of steel winding through Hoffman’s otherwise affable portrayal take an unshakeable hold.