The exorbitant religion fabricated in The Master—a religion so desperate for profoundness that it makes claims of “cellular” pain and events occurring trillions of years ago—is of paltry interest compared to a character who laughs while explaining how to rid yourself of crabs by taking a lighter to your testicles.

Within the movie, the religion, called the Cause, pales in interest because there’s never any doubt that it’s a fraudulent, cheap answer to questions of human origin and human turmoil. But the character Freddie Quell, played with fascinating volatility by Joaquin Phoenix, radiates because he’s simply no good with questions. Instead of directing his life, Freddie careens through it head first, losing one job and then another after being a sailor in the Second World War.

Freddie’s only talent is his fearlessness in trying all manner of household liquids in his mixed drinks. And this accidentally brings him into the world of Lancaster Dodd, the gregarious “master,” performed with the full manipulations of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who is working on Book II of his explanation of everything. Dodd sees in Freddie a willing, pliant experiment; he sees a blind man he can make see again. Freddie simply sees a much-needed friend in Dodd and struggles as he tries to believe in Dodd’s psuedo-science.

We follow Dodd’s long exercises, or “applications,” designed to get you in touch with “the perfect”. It’s always clear that we’re watching sophistry in action. An objector even reminds us that the out-of-body, time-traveling effects that Dodd’s followers experience are also possible through hypnosis.

And hypnosis would be a fair way of describing director Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie-making as well. There is a serene luxuriation in nearly every moment of The Master. The visual slowness feels animated by enchantment even when there is hardly any movement. The camera calmly lays down and watches as Freddie stares into his solitude. Even when there are brawls, we watch men slipping, grasping, faltering, almost in slow motion, rather than witnessing fists hitting faces.

Mostly, though, we watch Freddie. Freddie comes to us already cracked up, and he continues to crack into smaller and smaller pieces. On the screen, this is a tremendously gratifying sight. Permanently adolescent, Freddie’s humor, temperament and understanding is essentially a men’s-room scrawl. You can imagine him drawing certain tubular shapes and then proudly captioning this with “boobs and dick!” (In different formats, we do watch him do this.) Phoenix gives him a mighty sneer of a snarl up one side of his face, an expression that seems to show an uncertainty that prefers absolute certainty in anything at all, if only for a moment. He has the raw comportment of an adolescent as well. He walks with shoulders stooped but with legs slinking out in front of him, like R. Crumb’s “Keep on Truckin’”.

As we watch all of these mesmerizing displays, however, we never sense much of a larger outline. We gain no perspective that we weren’t already provided with early on. We always know that Dodd is faking it; half of his own followers seem to doubt his teachings. The Master never asks us to follow along with the Cause for the sake of drama, nor is there ever any need to seriously question this religion, or any other religion, or even self-created prophets. We’re ambling along with Freddie, really. And, while he’s mixing paint-thinner in his drink, he provides a beautifully captivating view.

 

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