The Master


Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, with weighty performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Anyone walking into Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest expecting a thinly veiled biopic of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman – a sweeping, savage character study in the vein of, say, Daniel Plainview – won’t take long to realise their error.

A sliver of Joaquin Phoenix’s face monopolises the film’s first frames, his dark, darting eyes taking centre-stage.

His traumatised drifter Freddy is the latest in a long line of broken, brutish Anderson men, scrabbling desperately to find connections, purpose, belonging.

And if Freddy’s story were boiled down to a single word, then the word wouldn’t be Scientology, or cults, or leaders. The word would be nostalgia.

Phoenix’s performance is remarkable not least in its physicality; with his half-twisted expressions and shuffling gait he looks like a man who has been chewed vigorously and spat back out, with all the parts still functionally working but slightly off-kilter.

Freddy’s not an easy character to love; emerging from war with unnamed scars, he’s fixated on sex but essentially infantile, prone to violent rages and subsisting on home-brewed hooch that’s wince-inducing even to look at.

After a series of jobs go sour, taking potential relationships (first with a pretty department store employee, later with a farmer who reminds him of his dad) down with them, Freddy drunkenly wanders onto a brightly lit cruise ship from a darkened dock, where he finds his purpose in charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who’s eager to lead him down the proper path.

Anderson took many of his cues from John Huston’s 1945 government documentary Let There Be Light, which explored trauma and depression in soldiers after combat.

There’s a scene taken wholesale from Light between Freddy and an army doctor, in which he explains that a recent ‘crying spell’ was brought on by a letter from Doris, a girl he left behind before the war: “I believe in your profession, it’s called nostalgia.”

Dodd’s methods centre on the idea of past life regression – recalling memories from before birth – as a beneficial and healing process.

“You seem so familiar to me,” he tells Freddy during their first  meeting, seducing him with the promise of a forgotten past, while their gripping initial session of ‘processing’ delves headfirst into Freddy’s longing for his pre-war life.

For a man sick with longing for a past he can’t get back, The Cause is irresistible.

It’s less clear what Dodd sees in Freddy; their makeshift father-son dynamic is closely aligned with one Anderson developed in Boogie Nights, but we all know exactly what Jack Horner saw in Dirk Diggler.

The development of their codependent, intensely intimate connection is endlessly fascinating to watch, and expertly written in how much it reveals about both men as the plot unravels.

We see Freddy as savagely devoted, defending Dodd from his detractors like a barely-domesticated guard dog; and while Dodd scolds him, he shows himself to be no less animalistic than his protégé when provoked.

Anderson’s absolute mastery of his camera, which lives and breathes alongside his characters, should be no surprise, but he’s working without his long-time DoP Roger Elswit for the first time here.

Far from the visuals suffering, new cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. creates what might be the director’s most mesmerisingly beautiful canvas yet, while Jonny Greenwood’s staccato score injects unease into even the stillest of shots.

Hoffman doesn’t make the mistake of giving a big performance. Instead, he’s composed and jovial and self-possessed, and some of the film’s most startling moments come when his potential for vicious explosion spills over the placid surface.

This is the most compelling performance of Phoenix’s career to date by some margin. It’s easy to get distracted by the physical trappings of what he’s doing – the stiff gait, the wrenched-up mouth and subtly sickly pallor – but he creates an exactingly specific arc for a character who could feel aimless.

It’s true, as some US naysayers have pointed out, that the plot isn’t driven by events, and it’s even true on one level to say that not much happens.

But Freddy’s progression from drifter to disciple to disillusionment, his love for Dodd, his blind rages and curiously inert sexual compulsion, his gradual realisation that the past is a foreign country, are played with vigorous commitment by Phoenix in a performance that will not be forgotten quickly.

The Master is far from flawless.

As is often the case with Anderson, the third act widens to become scattershot with one or two strands left under-explored.

Freddy’s disillusionment with Dodd comes a shade too abruptly, as though something were lost in the edit, while we get only intriguing glimpses of the possibility that Amy Adams’ Peggy, far from being the meekly supportive wife, is really the Machiavellian driving force behind Dodd.

But The Master is a breathtaking, singular, technically audacious film, white-hot with emotion, and boasting a few scenes so individually powerful that they’ll stay with you like a physical presence for days.

And Phoenix? As ill-advised as that Casey Affleck mockumentary might have been, it turns out that he is, in fact, very much still here.


With potent performers and poetic visuals, Anderson has made the boldest American picture of the year. Its strangeness can be hard to process, but this is a shattering study of the impossibility of recovering the past.

Film Details

User Reviews

    • Jareth64

      Oct 26th 2012, 11:57

      Whenever Total Film proffers up another 5/5 it should be a warning signal to readers; "Approach with caution!". Check out some other sources first. Their hit list to date? Chronicle, Tree of Life, Kill List, Batman: The Dark Knight Rises, and Prometheus (which they have 4/5, but hinted it was nearly 5/5, when it's actually complete rubbish).

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    • gquinn81

      Oct 27th 2012, 8:38

      @Jareth64 - Why read the review at all then? Reviews are just somebody's opinion on a particular film, just like you have opinions on all the films you listed. if you're going to immediately dismiss the review and star rating as wrong, why bother coming to the site at all? They're not wrong necessarily, just different.

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    • thedanieljson

      Oct 28th 2012, 0:09

      In my opinion, Chronice and Kill List are both 5 star films, and many would agree. They are both very divisive films however. But a review is ONE persons opinion of a film. Also, why you feel the need to comment this on a review for a P.T.A. film - a director who has not made one critical flop - is beyond me. Were you to comment that on, say, a five star review of Adam Sandler's latest 'That's My Boy' I wouldn't be so quick to comment, but The Master!?

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    • Jareth64

      Oct 28th 2012, 10:54

      @gquinn81 - It's called gaining an insight, silly. My point is, TotalFilm have a history of awarding films rave reviews only for viewers to find out that, really, the films aren't even particularly good. It's all in good fun; this is one of the joys of film watching. Getting different opinions, debating, controvery. Lighten up.

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    • hendrixisgod777

      Oct 29th 2012, 11:40

      Jareth64, I'm going to stick up for you. I now skip all reviews and go straight to the user comments. I find that they are normally better written, more entertaining and generally find them more helpful when deciding whether I'm going to like a film or not, unlike some of the Total Film reviews.

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    • gquinn81

      Oct 29th 2012, 17:44

      An insight into what? By your logic Total Film also have a history of giving rave reviews to films that turn out to be excellent. And terrible reviews of films that turn out to be just that. And vice versa. I agree that films should spark debate, that's why I really like this website. Maybe I'm reading it wrong, but your comment seemed to suggest that if Total Film give a film five stars it is, by defintion, going to be s**te. Which, as you put it, is just silly!

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    • Flynners

      Oct 29th 2012, 17:50

      Apologies for the length of this comment guys but I've been dwelling on this for a while. This reads like a competent, comprehensive review and putting it in the context of the talent involved and their past record I'm really looking forward to The Master. Personal opinions should only excuse a one star margin of error in a review by a professional film critic, someone who chose to spend years training and learning about all aspects of film and was chosen by a reputable magazine to represent their authority on the matter. As a film fan when I read a review some of the things I like to be made aware of are, who is involved, notable successes and failures or production issues which may effect the film, what the film sets out to achieve and if it succeeds and what kind of tastes it caters for. If a reviewer gives a film like That's My Boy five stars, it should be considered a lack of competence in their work rather than a difference of opinion. Then theres variables to be considered such as a contraversial film like Antichrist in which opinion is a factor, or the possibility that the review was fixed for money or a place on the poster etc. Usually putting it into context can help us decide if this is the case, eg. would it be worth an oversight of major flaws in a review and an extra star or two to have the words Total Film on a Dark Knight Rises poster or if reviews are mixed, who's involved in the film could mean the film may still appeal to you. The context of a four or five star review should tell you when to be cautiously optimistic or excited. Putting a bad review down to opinion is a cop out because put simply, if something can be flawed it's effectiveness can be assessed... in my own opinion!

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    • Flynners

      Oct 29th 2012, 18:27

      Also, I aknowledge that there's enjoyment to be had in low brow comedies (The Hangover) and the like and even some innovation and genius in films that are far from perfect or films that just touch on something personal for you but in the spirit of debate I think reviews should be more objective than that. I enjoy Adam Sandler films as throwaway entertainment (Punch Drunk Love aside) but I'm sure a professional reviewer spends more time spotting mistakes and missed opportunities, than laughing out loud, or deciding why a scene went so wrong or why the pacing is off, and the review should reflect as much. We all look at this website because we love film and are more than casual moviegoers so it's nice to be treated with intelligence as we try to find our next favourite films. otherwise we would'nt be here at all. Ok, rant over and and I'm genuinely sorry for rambling guys.

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