It is difficult to reconcile the view I have read and heard that “The Master,” now playing at Manlius Art Cinema, is a “masterpiece.”
It is beautifully acted by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, with a script by Paul Thomas Andersen that leaves you gasping and grasping. It is there that the beauty and interest in this film ends.
The story and characters are purposefully ambiguous, so dark and twisted as to leave the viewer in an impenetrable maze.
Set in the early 1950s, “The Master” is the story of post-WW II characters in the infant days of a Scientology-like religion. It superimposes the hypnotic, charming master, Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), with Freddie Quill (Phoenix), a down-at-the-heels, deadbeat drifter.
Dodd is the composed, adored, supposedly brilliant leader of a cultish group that looks into individuals’ past lives to help them reach peace and solemnity; Quill is a raging alcoholic, inarticulate lout who is adopted by Dodd into his following to raise Quill’s miserable existence.
Dodd is an interesting study as a charlatan in the pursuit of an ambitious dream, yet Quill is so volatile, such a loose cannon, that there is constant tension, if not between the two of them, then within the group at large. The uncertainty of Dodd’s motives and what really is happening between these two (latent homosexuality?) makes one wonder when and how the axe will fall.
Quill provides tremendous energy, both positive and negative, against Dodd’s more neutral framework. Quill pitches hardball that Dodd absorbs with easy-going insouciance. Phoenix’s manic nature and frequent transformations are legitimately artful, as to a lesser degree is Hoffman’s contemplative, persuasive verbosity.
In the end, however, the movie struck me as thematically void — great performances directed in a downward, black spiral. Darkness without salvation.
Jim Wigge is a retired engineer, Cazenovia resident and film-aficionado, who reviews movies for the Cazenovia Republican. He can be reached through the editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.