Paul Thomas Anderson's artistically challenging character study is sure to be one of the most controversial entries in the upcoming Oscar season, earning nominations for its three leading actors.
Beginning somewhere in the South Pacific at the conclusion of World War II, Navy seaman Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has a quirky psychosexual obsession, masturbating with a huge female torso sculpted in the wet sand. He's a volatile, demented drunkard, drifting from job to job, until he stumbles aboard an elegant yacht bound for New York from San Francisco via the Panama Canal. That's where he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic charlatan. Presenting himself as an erudite philosopher/guru, Dodd leads The Cause, a cult that -- using a manipulative hypnosis technique called "processing" -- purges troubling memories so that its members can theoretically gain control over self-destructive impulses, cure physical ailments and purify their immortal souls. While Quell quickly becomes a devoted follower, he harbors such anguish -- and anger -- that he eventually alienates everyone in the close-knit community, even Dodd's empathetic but strong-willed wife, Peggy (Amy Adams).
Following his 2007 Oscar-nominated epic, "There Will Be Blood," Anderson has meticulously crafted this visually stunning, intellectually provocative, yet plodding period piece, which never comes near the compelling force of "Boogie Nights" (1997) and "Magnolia" (1999). While L. Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology are never mentioned, the parallels are obvious, beginning with the physical resemblance between Hubbard and Hoffman's Dodd.
Problem is: it's an uneven, tedious and seemingly interminable meditation -- punctuated by a discordant Jonny Greenwood score and huge cast of supporting characters, including Dodd's cynical son (Jesse Plemons); Dodd's daughter (Jillian Bell), and her husband (Rami Malek); and Dodd's devoted disciple/benefactor (Laura Dern).
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Master" is an audacious, insidious 7, detailing how spiritual and religious systems can seduce and subversively manipulate vulnerable minds.