Promotion for The Master, the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood), has emphasized a unique, technical fact: It is the first narrative film in 16 years to have been shot on 70mm film. The large format, utilized in movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Far and Away, and Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, makes promises of an epically scaled experience. That's not exactly the case for The Master. The movie is grand, but the stunning photography serves to amplify an intense intimacy between Anderson's two leads. Sparring on screen are Philip Seymour Hoffman as the magnetic cult leader Lancaster Dodd and Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a mentally ill war vet who can't control his carnal instincts. Anderson fills the widest frame imaginable with the electricity that sparks between the two. The Master may not be filled with scenic vistas or sweeping action, but it's nothing less than jaw-dropping.
In the early 1950s, Freddie finds himself displaced from the world. He can't hold a job mostly because he keeps sleeping with his female coworkers and beating up irritable customers he's plagued by his drinking problem, and the one girl he's ever loved is half his age. Post-war, little is working out. Driven by bipolar tendencies, Freddie stows away on a party yacht headed to New York and drinks himself to sleep. When he awakens, he meets Lancaster Dodd aka The Master, leader of a religious group dubbed ''The Cause.'' Dodd immediately takes to Freddie he's a feral dog ready to be trained. Dodd is more than willing to domesticate him.
If you're looking for the definitive film on the history of Scientology, The Master isn't your film. Anderson does detail a bit of the inner-workings of Dodd's group they listen to tapes of The Master's soothing voice preach the good word and Dodd ''processes'' his followers, helping them explore their spiritual histories through exploration of their past lives but the meat of the story is Freddie's journey. The man's mind is stretched paper thin, instinct pulling him one way, Dodd's seductive promises pulling him in another. Phoenix is appropriately off-kilter, his snarled lip and dumb grin the centerpiece of his dazzling performance.
Hoffman makes for a worthy foil, turning Dodd into a powerful father figure with everything figured out. When he's entertaining the masses, Dodd dances with a fun-loving swagger. When he's ''processing,'' Dodd is hushed and never misses a beat. But when he's crossed, Dodd erupts with unimaginable force. The only person who can really pick him apart is his wife Peggy, a self-aware puppetmaster of the entire operation. Anderson compliments his actors with each scene, each setting, each camera angle. Every choice feels ultra-specific and intended. The director plays the action close up on his actors faces as Dodd burrows his way into Freddie's mind, we're there.
Hollywood.com rated this film 4 stars.