‘The Master’ movie review: Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful scientology tale

A complex, incredibly dense piece of work in which almost every scene – let alone the film as a whole – is left open to interpretation, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is another magnificent piece of filmmaking from the director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood, and his most artistically ambitious to date. 

Many viewers will leave the film perplexed; even the most astute will be left wondering what exactly the director intended in this or that scene. I knew while watching that this was a film I’d need to see again, and again – and that each viewing would lead to a different interpretation. Films like this – so in control of their craft, yet so reliant on audience consideration – are what cinephiles live for. 

The Master tells the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic drifter and World War II veteran struggling to adjust to society since returning from the Pacific. The film’s early scenes – sparse in dialogue, reminiscent of that dynamite opening in There Will Be Blood – showcase a loner who just doesn’t fit in with whatever he finds himself surrounded by.

That’s until he wakes up after a blackout aboard the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a “writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher” and also the leader of “The Cause”, a pseudo-religious organization with a small handful of devoted followers who dutifully follow Dodd’s teachings and views.

That sounds familiar. Controversy surrounded The Master during its development, as little was known about the project other than its ties to Scientology. And while the parallels are most certainly there – Dodd is clearly modeled after Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and some of the organization’s processes seem to be directly based on his ideas – The Master is less concerned with examining the religion than it is examining its central characters and the effect The Cause has on them.

It’s all about Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd, two men who couldn’t be less alike to the outside observer, but have more in common than their appearances and actions suggest. Their relationship is the key to understanding The Master, if the film can, in fact, be understood. 

Freddie Quell is one of the most complex characters ever to hit the screen, as fascinating and enigmatic to us as he is to Lancaster Dodd. Phoenix delivers an incredibly controlled performance that always suggests something greater than the character’s actions would seem to imply. He – and Quell – are unforgettable; Phoenix deserves the 2012 Best Actor Oscar that seems destined to go to Daniel Day-Lewis for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln.

Hoffman is also outstanding as Dodd, creating a rich and convincing character who threatens to win our minds despite our preconceptions; Amy Adams is likewise excellent as Dodd’s wife and second-in-command, who serves as an antithesis to the audience’s viewpoint. Both are frontrunners for Supporting Actor Oscars. 

From a visual standpoint, The Master is second to none; every shot is rich in color and detail and incredibly well-composed by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master was shot in 70mm – the first fiction film to be shot in the format since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1996.) Period detail is another of the film’s strengths: the film bleeds 1950s in everything from its sets and costumes to color palette. 

Jonny Greenwood’s outstanding, haunting original score gives this film an appropriately epic feel – and is sure to give you goosebumps. 

The Master may not be for all audiences, but viewers in search of challenging, defiantly impenetrable fare will rarely find it more richly composed than this. It’s a dazzling, provocative experience that I can’t wait to have again. 


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *