There comes a special period of time where movies all over the world suddenly pick up the slack; when our usual comic book and remake fodder is replaced by works of art that go on to resonate with audiences and critics alike. This period of time is usually called Award Show Season.
Following the form of award show season, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master offers a smorgasbord of profound truths, deep text left up to interpretation, and stellar performances by the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, taking a break from being super weird in real life to play a super weird character in a movie.
Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a drifting, alcoholic naval veteran in the '50s looking for his place in the world, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. As the film progresses, you find out that the sex-obsessed Quell also has a rocky past, having a mother locked in a mental institution, a girl still waiting for him to return from war (although he's been back for years), and a sexual history with his blood-related aunt.
Through one of his drunken late-night escapades, Quell stumbles upon Philip Seymour Hoffman's character, Lancaster Dodd, the leader of an organization centered on a book he had written based on his teachings and philosophies, vaguely called The Cause.
Upon finding Quell, Dodd immediately takes him in to educate him on all of the fundamentals of the Cause. Of course, Quell is the perfect test subject for Dodd's teachings: Here is a man, absent of faith, animalistic in appearance and personality, looking for something to cling to, whether it is solid or not. In Dodd, Quell finds everything he is looking for: a father figure, hope for the future and an acceptance back into society (or a society, as the movie's setting centrally takes place in Dodd's cult-like environment).
The movie is a character study of people just like Quell—those struggling to grasp onto anything in this reality to make them feel something, or even anything. The movie also delves into the question of cults and perhaps religious ideals in themselves—if we are taught and conditioned to believe in something, are we inclined to follow our faith strictly because someone told us to or because we are led to believe that the world outside of this faith is too insufficient to live in?
This film thrives on the powerful performances of its actors, especially that of Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, whose character appears as mysterious and alluring to the audience as he does to Freddie Quell. Hoffman plays Dodd with a quiet, even composure, masking a rage that is brought out in big and abrupt yet brief moments in the movie. Hoffman's play at pretension is brilliant, as he highlights Dodd's vanity so well that you know he believes that he is both a messiah and father figure to Quell and all folk like him.
One of the most underrated and underused actors in the film is Amy Adams, who plays Peggy Dodd, a Lady Macbeth-like character determined to have her husband's fight for the Cause to be respected and recognized. Adams plays Peggy as Hoffman plays Lancaster—her strength and acidic intentions remain at a quiet, even and polite tone. Adams is brilliant at playing the extremes of her character in her films, a trait which is hard to find in most actors today.
The Master poses many questions in its purpose, questioning cults, religions and American society's tendency to shun any sort of new propositions to mankind's origins and pathways to figuring out our place in the universe. Although running a little long at two hours and 17 minutes, this is definitely one of the top contenders of Award Show Season. Upheld by beautiful cinematography and stellar performances by its main cast, The Master provides a visceral and thematically engaging film without losing its sense of direction and powerful messages in its stretched-out runtime.