To say that Naval officer Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix in The Master) survived World War II would be to overstate the matter. While Freddie did not die, the bent, feral man who squints out of his right eye and talks out of the left side of his mouth is far from whole.
Sexually rapacious and a blistering drunk, Freddie is a lost sheep in need of a flock. As it happens, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymor Hoffman) is a shepherd. Personable and generous to Freddie when the young man stows away on his boat, Lancaster seems every bit Freddie’s opposite.
Lancaster is also the founder of the Cause, a religious movement with clear parallels to Scientology. But this is not a movie about Scientology. Director Paul Thomas Anderson is far more interested in the dynamic between the men than he is in investigating religion. Fortunately, Hoffman and Phoenix know just how to make that dynamic riveting.
Hoffman is remarkably subtle in revealing Lancaster’s spiteful ego, and Phoenix is just … remarkable. His turn as a man drained and broken is so powerful, I’m afraid to imagine what he had to do to deliver it.
Amy Adams is riveting too as Lancaster’s steely wife.
Still, The Master is challenging in its slow pace and its moral caginess. It leaves Freddie with nothing but wrenching choices: Either he can save himself by clinging to a man who may well be a false prophet or he can wither alone.