[Screen It]


(2012) (Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman) (R)

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Drama: A troubled WWII Navy veteran and drifter takes up with a charismatic cult leader and that man's family and followers.
Freddie Quell (JOAQUIN PHOENIX) is a troubled WWII Navy veteran who's having problems readjusting to normal life. He's an alcoholic prone to aggressive outbursts, and can't keep a job, be that as a department store photographer or a migrant worker. Fleeing from one of his latest escapades, he stows away on a party yacht that's leaving San Francisco on its way to New York City. Onboard is Lancaster Dodd (PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN), a charismatic novelist and philosopher who's developed a cult following regarding his teachings about people's problems stemming from their past lives.

He's there with his pregnant wife, Peggy (AMY ADAMS), and adult son, Val (JESSE PLEMONS), to celebrate the wedding of their daughter, Elizabeth (AMBYR CHILDERS), to Clark (RAMI MALEK). Everyone is friendly to Freddie who thinks all of this is weird but funny, and he becomes a favorite of Lancaster not only because Freddie makes a potent homemade brew of spirits, but also due to believing they know each other from a past life.

As they continue their travels at sea, and then later in New York, Philadelphia and then Phoenix where Lancaster plans to publish his second book about his teachings, the cult leader takes Freddie under his wing, certain he can transform the troubled young man into a better person.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Back when zoologist Desmond Morris published "The Naked Ape: A Zoologist's Study of the Human Animal," DNA sequencing didn't exist. Accordingly, the author's claims were based simply on observation and interpretation rather than straight science. But now that DNA can be examined and broken down, some of Morris' claims have proven true in that there's not a great deal of difference in the genetic coding between humans and apes.

Of course, there's a vast difference in how both species have evolved over time, with man's superior brain functioning creating the world in which we live today. Yet, for as civilized as most of us appear to be, there are still animal instincts in everyone, from territory and dominance issues to survival, reproduction and more. It's the ability to deal with them that varies from person to person, with some of the more adjusted often trying to help the less fortunate overcome their baser instincts.

That's just one of the themes that runs through "The Master," writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's mesmerizing but occasionally frustrating look at man's attempt to civilize himself and others. Along with the ages old issue of father/son and teacher/student relationships, the cult of personality and more, Anderson throws a lot up on the screen. And his meticulous approach at shot selection, pacing and manipulation of the viewer essentially necessitates more than one viewing just to figure out what everything means as well as determine if what's offered is brilliant or pretentious.

If Anderson's name doesn't ring a bell for the average moviegoer, his films probably will. Starting with the little seen "Hard Eight" in 1996, he made a huge splash with "Boogie Nights" a year later, followed by subsequent releases of "Magnolia," "Punch-Drunk Love" and the eight-time Oscar nominated "There Will Be Blood" from five years ago.

The auteur follows through with some of the themes from that Daniel Day Lewis tour de force flick here, accompanied and fueled by a similarly haunting score by Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood (who also composed the music in "TWBB") and gorgeous cinematography courtesy of Mihai Malaimare Jr. Like his contemporaries Wes Anderson and Terrence Malick (along with the late, great Stanley Kubrick), every shot and sequence appear to be meticulously calculated and executed, with the result coming off akin to watching a moving display of museum artwork.

He certainly gets terrific performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix as the leads and examples of his inspection of teacher/student and civilized/animalistic elements found within mankind. Hoffman plays the charismatic leader of a 1950s era cult who can charm most anyone and make them believe in his views of why people behave the way they do, along with his methods of rectifying that. Phoenix plays his latest charge, a troubled WWII Navy veteran who always gives in to hedonistic pleasures, be that from the bottle or carnal knowledge of some young woman.

Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is usually dressed in fine attire and his posture and demeanor is that of a gentleman, while Phoenix's Freddie Quell is nearly always disheveled, walks hunched over with his arms swinging like an ape, and has a facial expression that's a mixture of lust, anger, constipation and who knows what else. Both performances are something to behold (and Anderson obviously agrees, sometimes lingering on their faces in close-up for agonizingly long bouts of screen time) as they work in, around and through the film's various themes.

While speculation asserts that this is a veiled interpretation of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, anyone not overly familiar with either won't likely make that association, as similarities to most any cult-like leader of the past or present could be easily made as well. Whatever the historical intention may or may not be, it's interesting philosophical, psychological and even biological matter watching one man trying to civilize the other, but also giving in to some of his baser instincts as well, all while the teacher-student motif simultaneously plays out.

That said, it's also sometimes laboriously slow and the script often feels like it's taking a fairly roundabout and time-consuming course just to get back where it was otherwise easily headed. And while the film will get a good score from yours truly and probably does need a second (or more) viewing for a more accurate analysis, I'm not so sure I could sit through its 137 minutes again without some squirminess and/or boredom setting in.

Even so, Hoffman and Phoenix create such captivating characters (with Amy Adams also giving a good turn as a shrewdly manipulative wife), and Anderson and his team's various touches paint with enough uncertainty that you simply can't take your eyes off what's presented. Whether a second viewing would reveal even more depth and amazement or expose some or all of what's offered as a mesmerizing sham (and thus, intentionally or not, tie in with the examination of the cult of personality) is yet to be determined. Until then, and based on just the initial viewing, "The Master" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed September 17, 2012 / Posted September 21, 2012

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