Beautiful and intense, The Master is impossible to predict

Phillip Seymour Hoffman in "The Master"

‘The Master’ is gorgeous and ponderous and a wonder to behold.


Family, love, and religion. A relationship of love is usually from the bonds of family or attraction — but sometimes it can be a platonic connection of friendship. Damaged people often find comfort in each other — but can they help each other heal or are they only making things worse? Can the power of belief bring about change and healing, or are there limits?

The Master follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as a veteran in the years following World War II. Freddie is damaged in ways unclear and complicated, with heightened sexual impulses and severe alcoholism — all leading to sudden outbursts of his violent temper. The kid’s got issues. After some trouble, he stows away on a ship departing a San Francisco harbor — it turns out this boat is carrying the members of a new movement called simply The Cause, led by charismatic author Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and supported by wife Peggy (Amy Adams), his son (Jesse Plemons, in utterly inspired casting), and daughter (Ambyr Childers) with her new husband (Rami Malek). Freddie is discovered and taken in with curious and welcoming arms by Lancaster, who finds the veteran fascinating and possibly a problem to solve with The Cause.

But soon enough the relationship between Freddie and Lancaster builds, the master and servant, the father and surrogate son, the doctor and patient. Freddie brings his loyalty and fierce intensity to bear against the completely self-assured and accepting nature of Lancaster. But not everything is so grand … skeptics and dissenters seek to collapse The Cause or prove it false, while indomitable and unimpeachably loyal Peggy thinks Freddie may prove to be a problem that not even The Cause can solve.

From beginning to end, this film is beautiful to watch, with shockingly impeccable cinematography and immersive editing.

From beginning to end, this film is beautiful to watch, with shockingly impeccable cinematography and immersive editing. But that’s not to take away from the ridiculously good performances of the “big three” acting presences in this movie. Joaquin Phoenix has a lip-curling, animalistic way of moving and acting, a physicality that leaps off the screen and discomforts while it draws the eye. Philip Seymour Hoffman makes you understand why a movement of rabidly loyal members would follow him, and Amy Adams has a way of staring into your soul and demanding something more. More what exactly, it’s hard to say.

The story and plot is not overly complicated; in many ways it’s relatively simple, but it’s about these people, and how belief affects them — that is what matters here. This is not a flawless movie, nor will everyone enjoy the achingly slow build to an ending that tries to frustrate you. But there’s no question that it stands out from the crowd of mediocrity and pablum — perhaps the meaning is only skin deep, or perhaps it’s about something real. Either way, it’s a damn good movie.

Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company

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