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THE MASTER review…

Posted on February 8th, 2013
Posted on February 8th, 2013

by Coop Cooper

One of my favorite films of 2011, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” dealt with characters under the influence of cults and gave audiences a glimpse into the psychology of members who are under the control of an influential individual. It also offered clues to the techniques these individuals and groups use to exact control. Loosely based on the life of L. Ron Hubbard and the rise of his Scientology religion, “The Master” also explores these ideas of control, influence and self discovery in the package of an exceptional film.

Freddy (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally disturbed sailor with a nihilistic attitude, returns from WWII with no plans and no direction. After a short stint as a drunken department store photographer, he becomes a migrant laborer and nearly kills a fellow worker who overdoses on his homemade moonshine. On the run, he stows away on a San Francisco leisure boat commanded by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who chooses to mentor Freddy and use him as a guinea pig for his psychological healing technique called ‘processing.’ Dodd, an author and new age philosopher, surrounds himself with a dedicated group of followers. Freddy is charmed and inspired by him and obeys him without question, but cannot control his violent outbursts. As Dodd’s fondness for Freddy grows, Dodd’s family become increasingly concerned with Freddy’s erratic behavior, but Dodd is determined to bring him under control.

Despite the fact that he changed the name of the religion and the characters to avoid litigation, Paul Thomas Anderson made a bold choice in deciding to use Scientology as a vehicle to tell any type of story, especially one that could be perceived as negative. This is especially true since he works in a business where Scientology has a powerful presence and is known for viciously defending its reputation through intimidation and litigation. The actors likewise risk their careers as well for portraying the founders of Scientology. They could easily be blackballed or ostracized from future projects. Since the internet has the habit of distributing information freely and making secrets more transparent, many of the religion’s more outrageous and clandestine beliefs/practices have been exposed. Perhaps this gives those involved in this film a measure of protection, but time will tell. It also doesn’t hurt that the film is exceptional and moving without being overtly judgmental.

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is odd and somewhat frightening. He shuffles around, mumbles, engages in antisocial behavior then flies into a rage at the drop of a hat, especially when drunk. Under the tutelage of Dodd, Phoenix’s character seems to find a bit of peace in life, but it’s the ending that really hits a home run in revealing the motivations of these characters. With a 2013 Lead Actor Oscar nomination for this role, Phoenix may not win but he certainly deserves to.

The likewise nominated (for Best Supporting Actor) Hoffman is highly charismatic and confident throughout his entire performance. Even through his character’s low points, he has a charming air about him. He certainly deserves recognition from the Academy, but considering the political nature of the film, it’s doubtful “The Master” will win in any category – although I like to hope it will.

The film’s primary theme seems to be how the religion’s philosophy on mental illness and treatment came to be. Prominent Scientologists such as Tom Cruise have come out publicly to denounce psychiatry and psychopharmacology as a witchdoctor-like practice. As an alternative, they promote L. Ron Hubbard’s questionable methods of mental conditioning… available as long as you are a member in good standing with the church. Perhaps the film is an indictment of that belief and how its followers fail to question Hubbard’s methods, as well as the allegations of abuse and abandonment of its members with mental disorders and handicaps. Perhaps it’s about how the path to self-discovery and betterment is helpful as long as the path is taken. Hard to say with such an ambiguous conclusion, but nevertheless, the film is amazing.

The Master” releases on video February 26.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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