The sixth film from Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson isn’t the ‘Scientology movie’ the pre-release furore would have you believe. It’s a much more intimate affair, which just happens to have the backdrop of a Scientology-like religion. But all the religious trappings are incidental in a film that’s more concerned with the relationship between two men, and their effect on each other.
And it’s a difficult one to review.
The film concerns the character of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a disaffected, sexually repressed, and alcoholic former soldier, and his failed attempts to reintegrate back into a society that no longer wants him, if it ever did. Eventually, he stumbles across Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, the Master of the title; the leader of a religious group called The Cause who begins to turn his life around.
Throughout the film, the sincerity of Dodd and the legitimacy of his religion/cult are questioned and at times we learn that perhaps even Dodd isn’t fully behind his own teachings, but at the same time we can see how much his techniques are genuinely helping Freddie overcome his various personality defects and past trauma and heartbreak. We want Freddie to get better, even if it is through a fake (or not) belief system.
Phoenix has rarely, if ever, been better as Quell, all pent up rage and facial tics, beneath a deep Southern drawl; he’s able to craft a believable arc for his character that reaches a satisfying and emotional end. It’s an awards worthy performance. Hoffman deserves a lot of plaudits as well, with the less attractive, but no less complicated role. His Dodd is full of warmth and heart, and you easily believe that he could be a leader figure to his followers, which neatly juxtaposes with his rare slips into outright anger.
The scenes with these two men alone together are an absolute acting masterclass. Their first lengthy scene has Dodd carrying out a personality test of Quell; not very much is said but the tension and atmosphere is palpable throughout. The quality of these scenes, of which there are four standouts in the entire two hour plus running time, unfortunately make the rest of the film seem pedestrian as a result. At times it flounders and meanders under the weight of its own ambition. There seems to be a lot of unnecessary padding, which while looking undoubtedly pretty (Anderson being a true master behind the camera) never really connects in the way the scenes with just the two actors do.
Taken as a whole, the film is more interesting than enjoyable, and while the acting is of the highest calibre, and the relationship between the two leads is fleshed out beautifully, the surrounding film doesn’t hold the interest you’d hope for it to demand. As Freddie’s journey it’s ultimately satisfying, and while the ending is probably the only one that the film could have had, it doesn’t pack the emotional heft that you’d normally expect.
But then, maybe that’s the point.
Review by Jonathan Cardwell.
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