The Master 3/4 – a movie review by James Berardinelli

November 8, 2012 by James Berardinelli - Reelviews
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The Master is one of the most technically impressive films of 2012. It is the work of an artist; every shot is carefully composed. The set design, which recreates post-World War II America, is impeccable.

The acting of the leads, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, is without peer. The cinematography, the purview of Mihai Malaimare Jr., represents the first time 65mm has been used since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. Yet, for all of The Master’s laudable elements, it falls short of greatness for one simple reason: the storytelling is unspectacular. The slowly paced narrative is less engaging than one might suppose from the premise and the characters, although providing Phoenix and Hoffman with plenty of opportunities to display their talent, are not deeply drawn.

It has been widely reported, and even acknowledged by Paul Thomas Anderson, that L. Ron Hubbard was an inspiration for the character of Lancaster Dodd (played by Hoffman). This has led to speculation that The Master is an expose of Scientology. While there are similarities between the real-life religion and the fictitious cult of The Master, the movie is not about the development of Hubbard’s organization. In fact, the film isn’t really about Hubbard/Dodd at all. Instead, it focuses on Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a G.I. who has been psychologically damaged by his participation in World War II and returns home without prospects or plans for a future. He becomes enmeshed in Dodd’s group of fanatical followers when he drunkenly stumbles aboard the boat where “The Master” is marrying his daughter, Elizabeth (Ambyr Childrs), to true believer Clark (Remi Malek). Freddie quickly rises through the ranks, becoming Dodd’s right-hand man, but his problems – alcoholism and a hair-trigger temper – are not resolved by Dodd’s pseudo-psychology. He remains a deeply disturbed individual and Dodd’s inability to “cure” him causes several of those in The Master’s inner circle, including his wife (Amy Adams), to question whether Freddie should be cast out.

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