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Movie review: ‘The Master’ features wonderful cinematography, challenging plot

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Film review

'The Master'
What: Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a cult leader, Amy Adams portrays his skillful wife, and Joaquin Phoenix plays a mixed-up, younger man the cult leader takes under his wing.
Where playing: Rave
Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Rating: R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language.
3 1/2 stars out of four

Saturday, September 22, 2012 - 12:01 am

Viewers hoping for a juicy expose of the super-secretive Church of Scientology in “The Master” might want to adjust their expectations just a tad.

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has acknowledged that the cult leader of the film's title — played with great bluster and bravado by Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of his longtime players — was inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

And certain key phrases and ideas that are tenets of the church do show up in the film. And yet, the church — or rather, “The Cause,” as it's known here — emerges relatively unscathed.

“The Master” takes place in 1950 as Hoffman's character, the charismatic Lancaster Dodd, is releasing an important new book outlining his bold philosophy; that's the same year Hubbard published his worldwide best-seller, “Dianetics.”

Dodd, whom his followers refer to as “Master,” is commanding and calculating and sometimes even cruel, but the bond he forges with a wayward Joaquin Phoenix reveals his inquisitiveness, his generosity of spirit and a love that can't be defined, teetering as it does between the paternal and the homoerotic.

Meanwhile, Phoenix's character, the troubled, volatile and often inebriated Freddie Quell, seems at his happiest once he's safely ensconced within the group. He's still a “scoundrel,” as Dodd affectionately labels him upon their first meeting, but at least he's functioning in a society.

But “The Master” isn't interested in anything so clear-cut as joy vs. misery. It's about the way people's lives intersect, if only briefly and perhaps without a satisfying sense of closure. Anderson, long a master himself of technique and tone, has created a startling, stunningly gorgeous film shot in lushly vibrant 65mm, with powerful performances all around and impeccable production design.

But it's also his most ambitious film yet — quite a feat following the sprawling “Magnolia” and the operatic “There Will Be Blood” — in that it's more impressionistic and less adherent to a tidy three-act structure.

If you like answers, you will feel frustrated. And yet, as fond of ambiguity as I usually am, I still felt a bit emotionally detached afterward. Wowed, for sure, but not exactly moved.

We are on edge from the start, and Phoenix's presence magnifies that sensation. Hunched-over and mumbling, with an off-kilter sense of humor and a screwed-up mouth, Freddie is all impulse, and it's usually of an adolescent, sexual nature.

Freddie wasn't entirely right before he left Lynn, Mass., to fight in World War II, and Navy combat has only traumatized him further. After drifting from job to job Freddie finds himself wandering onto a docked yacht that's the site of a lavish party.

Turns out, Dodd has borrowed the vessel for his daughter's wedding, and everyone on board is sailing from San Francisco to New York.

Dodd takes an instant liking to his stowaway and makes him his protege. Maybe he's fascinated by this young man's animalistic nature from a scientific perspective and wants to tame him. Or maybe he recognizes a kindred spirit; despite Dodd's mantras about not letting your emotions control you, he quickly snaps when questioned or crossed, and he's just as fond as Freddie is of the drink.

As Freddie insinuates himself within the highest echelons of The Cause and Dodd's own family, Dodd's true-believer wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), mistrusts him more and more. Adams has the least-showy part among the three leads but, in some ways, she might just give the most impressive performance of all.

Slowly, steadily, she reveals Peggy as the true brains and muscle of the operation. It's frightening, and it demonstrates yet another facet of Adams' great versatility.