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Friday, August 17, 2012

Coming not so soon: The Master

Posted By on 08.17.12 at 02:17 PM

Philip Seymour Hoffman as charismatic leader Lancaster Dodd in The Master
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman as charismatic leader Lancaster Dodd in The Master
Click here to read Drew Hunt's take on the 70-millimeter presentation of The Master.

Last night the Music Box presented the Chicago premiere of The Master, the latest drama from the enormously talented Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood). As Ben Kenigsberg wrote recently at Time Out Chicago, Weinstein Company is releasing the film September 21 in 70-millimeter, a beloved format for cinephiles but one that can be shown in fewer than a hundred venues nationally (more on this in Drew Hunt's forthcoming post). The only place in town that can accommodate The Master is Music Box, and as theater manager Dave Jennings announced last night, other commitments may prevent a full-fledged Chicago run until 2013. By then the movie, about a charismatic spiritual leader closely modeled on L. Ron Hubbard, could well be in Oscar contention, because it's damn good. Tickets for the screening sold out quickly, and the theater was jammed. I had the bad luck to be seated behind Ted Cassidy for the first reel or two, so I was probably watching in about 45-millimeter. But I soon moved and found a vacant seat with a better vantage point.

Joaquin Phoenix as the troubled Freddie Sutton, who falls under Dodds spell
  • Joaquin Phoenix as the troubled Freddie Sutton, who falls under Dodd's spell
The Master is Anderson's first film since the commanding There Will Be Blood, a movie it resembles in many respects. Like Blood, it's a powerful period piece because, in addition to the flawless locations and production design, it persuasively dramatizes the mind-set of the times—in this case the postwar era, when the self-destructive Freddie Sutton (Joaquin Phoenix) is discharged from navy service in the South Pacific and flounders back in the States before he comes under the wing of L. Ron Hubbard—sorry, make that Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). And just as There Will Be Blood chronicled the contest of wills between an older man (Daniel Day Lewis's greedy and ruthless oil man) and a younger (Paul Dano's smarmy young star preacher), The Master tracks the emotional struggle between Hubbard—sorry, sorry, Lancaster Dodd—and the troubled, sexually obsessed, and often violent young man as he tries to fit in with the flock that's already gathered around Dodd. The movie has the feel of something I'll need to see several more times to really get a handle on, but the genius of the film, I think, is that Freddie's personal story allows one to think about Scientology in terms of its limits on personal freedom—which includes the freedom to fail miserably at life.

Amy Adams as Dodds loyal wife, Mary Sue
  • Amy Adams as Dodd's loyal wife, Mary Sue
The Master is deeply weird in its portrayal of sexuality. The relationship between the two men is almost passionate (Dodd firmly embraces Freddie at their every meeting), and Dodd's grown daughter (Ambyr Childers) lusts after Freddie (though she reports to her family at the dinner table that he's the aggressor). There's a bizarre scene in which Dodd executes a song-and-dance number in a parlor for his adoring followers, and through Freddie's eyes all the women, young and old—including Dodd's pregnant wife, Mary Sue (Amy Adams)—are completely nude. Even that fades in comparison to the scene in which Mary Sue masturbates Dodd over a bathroom sink, chanting, "Come for me! Come for me!" in his ear until he does, violently. I may never be able to watch Enchanted again.

Of course The Master will renew the debate over Scientology; according to the New York Daily News, Tom Cruise—who gave an Oscar-nominated supporting performance in Magnolia—"had issues" with the film after Anderson showed it to him. Given the power of Scientology in Hollywood, Anderson may have been wise to make the movie in a format not that many people can see. He may wish he'd released it on Zoetrope.

Three trailers are posted on the film's website.

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