Mesmerizing acting, difficult subtext elevate ‘The Master’
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” reverberates with the same kind of dark, quiet unease that also helped his 2007 film, “There Will Be Blood,” balance on the border of bizarre and artistically profound.
In the most challenging film of the year, Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) is a WWII vet with a drinking problem and psychological issues who falls under the beguiling spell of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of the cult-like “the Cause,” which favors past-life exploration and pseudo-science.
Hoffman gives the kind of showy performance that begs for an Academy Award nomination. Dodd draws people in with seemingly good-natured empathy, then has them do his bidding, while looking like he could snap at any moment.
Phoenix, on the other hand, is more subtle and heartbreaking. He becomes so much a part of this character that you start to worry about the actor. Can a person portray such a lost and disturbed man without becoming that way himself? Together, Hoffman and Phoenix enact a compelling but confounding ballet of a relationship: Father-son, prophet-disciple, or maybe something else. Their bond, like the film, defies easy explanation.