By THOMAS BOND
A man must serve a master, or a higher calling, in order to have peace and purpose. That seems to be the message of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, anyways. And while the message doesn’t seem clear until the very end, there is plenty of cinematic gold to keep your mind ticking through its more than two hours of running time. “The Master” tells not so much a plotted tale, rather it presents us with two men who are both struggling in one way or another with the concept of something more than themselves, something bigger than their own lives. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a sailor who at the end of WWII is more lost than ever, and whose taste for alcohol, even in toxic forms, grows more every day. He stumbles into Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, a man whose life is devoted to The Cause, based on a book he wrote that purports to “awaken” humans unto their past and future lives, thus fully unlocking their potential. For some, like the volatile Freddie, it’s a welcome avenue of purpose and belonging. For others, even Dodd’s own son, it reeks of cult. What makes “The Master” so intriguing is the real world questions it raises about greater purpose and whether or not serving a higher power is a necessity. Dodd presents himself as being fully aware and realized, yet cracks begin to show as the years wear on him and his fame grows. We ask ourselves if he can keep it up. What’s “it”? His followers start to wonder too. But who does Dodd serve? Who is his master? For Freddie Quell, his master is Dodd, and he serves him to the best of his ability, yet it’s not enough for him. Freddie is a torn individual, desperate for belonging and purpose yet hell-bent on never being caged up like an animal. The mere presence of these characters is enough to fill hours of potential stories, whether the plot truly goes anywhere or not. With a film like “The Master”, the journey is in the souls of the characters, and with us as well. It’s a beautifully shot film, directed by a man who has yet to commit a cinematic foul, and acted by two men who disappear into their characters so fully we forget we’re watching a movie. And isn’t that the point? Here is a film that should surely earn Oscar noms for Directing, Cinematography, Art Direction, Best Actor (Phoenix), Best Supporting Actor (Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Amy Adams, as Dodd’s frigid wife), as well as Best Picture, which it will surely win until I am convinced otherwise (Ben Affleck’s “Argo”, perhaps?). This film just “feels” like a winner. Not only that, but PTA might just have gotten away with presenting an (sometimes harsh) analogy to Scientology, as well as slyly suggesting that both of his lead characters are closeted gays. Talk about a loaded film.