Every once in a while a I encounter a film that sticks around. Its images run through my brain as I walk the dog, its score plays on a loop while I work, and I find myself pondering its ideas as sleep washes over me. About a month ago I attended a sneak preview screening of just such a film: Paul Thomas Anderson’s new instant classic of the American cinema, The Master.
Set in the turbulent years immediately following World War II, The Master follows recent Navy discharge Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as he drifts under the spell of an enigmatic and charming man named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose wide-eyed acolytes call him ‘Master.’ The film has generated a fair amount of controversy and attention throughout its production because Dodd resembles (not so coincidentally) L. Ron Hubbard, the notorious founding prophet of Scientology. Those expecting a Gawker-style expose will surely be disappointed. The Master is about Scientology in the same way that Anderson’s last feature, the equally stunning and ensnaring There Will Be Blood, was about oil. The setting and religious trappings are important, but they are simply the starting point for Anderson to dive back at his recurrent themes: fathers and sons, the corruption inherent to our capitalist society, and the deep well of disappointment, rage, confusion and loneliness that exists within all of us.