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Review: The Master a fascinating probe into cult leaders, Scientology (Includes first-hand account)

Screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Master is an extraordinary film rarely faltering or missing a note. Combining the talents of Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, the film (set for a Sept. 21 release) boasts a cast some directors could only fantasize about for decades. But thanks to Paul Thomas Anderson‘s sway, the director was treated to talented artists who seamlessly drove the story home into the viewer’s heart.

Freddy (Phoenix) is a lost soul, pinballing from booze-fuelled chaos to ugly hangovers after his World War II naval duties send him home to the States. He gets a job as a joyless photographer, but Freddy’s emotional imbalance careens him past the everyman life and into his own Gomorrah, where he chases moonshine and women.

He then meets Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a quick-witted smooth talker who describes himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher,” and, above all, “a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man.” Freddy is lost but also curious, and with nowhere to go he soon falls under the spell of Dodd and his eerily complacent family. It’s not weird to Freddy; he just needs a home.

The bulk of the movie looks at Dodd’s hold on people as he preaches about the Cause, a way to prevent traumas and ailments in people without use of medicine. He speaks of a world a trillion years in the making, of alien beings, of time travel. Here, we get the sense Anderson is riffing off Scientology‘s beginnings, but no concrete hints tell us if Dodd is mirrored from Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Luckily the Scientology theme is not the text of The Master, but instead the subtext. What really rivets us to the screen is the relationship between Freddy and Dodd.

At times violent and insulting, the bond between the two men is tenuous at best, charged with a tension seething in almost every scene. It seems they love to hate each other. Hoffman does an incredible job at playing the character without too much over-the-top buffoonery; you almost want to believe the optimism he’s selling to post-war America. And the moments when Hoffman blows up on skeptics who question his theories are reminiscent of Hoffman’s freak-out in Punch-Drunk Love.

Come February, the Academy Award for Best Actor should be handed to Phoenix. It’s the role he was born to play. Freddy is a wiseass, laughing at his own jokes, not a far cry from when Phoenix played a prank on us all with his faux-documentary I’m Still Here. You can see the pathos etched in the man’s eyes. You can feel the fury rise in his voice, gradually, when Freddy recounts the love that got away. Beyond the words from the script, the true emotion Freddy encounters comes through in his body language, and Phoenix does an excellent job conveying the right tone at the right time.

Also worth commending is Amy Adams, playing Dodd’s ferocious wife. She gets bad vibes about Freddy, and isn’t afraid to tell her husband. There’s a quiet storm brewing in her, and Adams dives fully into the role of a woman willing to stand by her man no matter what. She lets that storm peek out from her sunny face when someone like Freddy bruises the family. Adams shows some nice range in The Master, a far cry from the hapless love interest Lois Lane we’ll soon see her in when The Man of Steel debuts.

The soundtrack serves as the backbone to the film’s drama, and once again Anderson enlists Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood to provide the experimental soundtrack (as he did on There Will Be Blood). Often, the music echoes what Freddy is feeling, that desperation of a man looking for answers, unsure of himself, wrapped in depression, finding solace only in what courage the bottle can give him.

The last 20 minutes felt somewhat tacked on, as if Anderson needed a more complete way to wrap the story, but the added chunk is soon forgotten when you remember the priceless scenes on display in the previous two hours. The Master is Anderson once again taking a big-picture subject – like the greed for oil in There Will Be Blood – and framing the idea as conflict between two bulldogs. Only one can come out with his head held high, and finding out who triumphs over their personal demons becomes central to The Master‘s artistic soul.

For more reviews from TIFF, click here.

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