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Master, The (Blu-ray Review)

23 Feb, 2013 By: John Latchem

Street 2/26/13
Anchor Bay
Box Office $16.26 million
$29.98 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for sexual content, graphic nudity and language.
Stars Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour
Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern.

Paul Thomas Anderson films tend to deal heavily with motifs about the bonds of family among disparate characters brought together by circumstance. The writer-director doesn’t stray from that formula in The Master, a densely layered film that inspires multiple viewings to unlock all the subtle messaging it’s trying to convey.

The structure is very similar to Anderson’s 1998 classic Boogie Nights, with the unorthodox family unit this time being a cult instead of a pornography troupe. As with the earlier film, The Master features a drifter stumbling upon an organization and becoming part of the group before trying to reclaim some sense of his own identity.

The wayward soul here is Freddie Quell, an alcoholic World War II veteran having trouble adjusting to civilian life, played with intensity by Joaquin Phoenix. He stows away on a yacht where all the passengers are members of The Cause, a philosophical movement led by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Eventually Freddie takes up with them, though he doesn’t always mesh with the tenets of the group.

The depiction of The Cause is loosely inspired by the rise of Scientology, which has upset some members of that movement, especially scenes that suggest Lancaster Dodd is simply making up the rules of his religion as he goes.

One key scene in that regard involves Dodd publishing his second book to expand upon the ideas he laid out in his first one, where a major foundation of The Cause was established to be reincarnation. In the follow up, he encourages followers to “imagine” past lives rather than “recall” them, and when an acolyte (played by Laura Dern) wonders about the change, which would seem significant to the fundamentals of The Cause, Dodd spouts a quick line a BS to justify the change to cover the fact that he couldn’t be bothered to remember the exact particulars of his own philosophy.

Aside from the Scientology parallels, this scene reminded me more of the portrayal of Mormonism on “South Park,” in the episode that shows Joseph Smith being asked to re-create the text of the Book of Mormon from the Golden Tablets, and he comes up with a completely new translation.

However, the cult as presented here is more of a construct of the story, something for Freddie to come across to try to inject meaning and stability into his life. The movie isn’t about The Cause, but about Freddie. Anderson’s primary focus is the plight of shellshocked WWII veterans, as evidenced by the inclusion in the Blu-ray extras of John Huston’s hourlong 1948 documentary Let There Be Light, a fascinating glimpse at the psychological recovery process of several U.S. soldiers.

Anderson seems to be drawing clear parallels between serving in the U.S. Armed Forces and living with a cult, in the sense that both impose rules and structure that seek to snap those who serve into conformity.

The former soldier’s instincts to fight for his country are replaced by an impulse to defend The Cause, as he violently assaults anyone with an unkind word about Dodd, who “trains” Freddie with repetitive tasks almost like a drillmaster would.

Freddie’s association with both organizations is hampered by alcoholism and his propensity for brewing off-brand moonshine. In fact, it’s Dodd’s affinity for the homemade liquor that endears him to Freddie to begin with, and the reason Freddie is invited to join The Cause.

Anderson tends to turn his films into acting clinics, and The Master is no different, with Phoenix, Hoffman and Amy Adams (as Dodd’s no-nonsense wife) earning well-deserved Oscar nominations. Hoffman’s controlling, assured Dodd, so confident in his speech, shows how far he’s come from the bumbling sadsack Scotty character he played back in Boogie Nights.

Other extras on the Blu-ray include a 20-minute montage of deleted scenes set to music, which is a interesting way of presenting them; a montage of trailers for various screenings held around the country, also containing some deleted footage; and a short making-of featurette.

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