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The struggle to find spiritual meaning


THE MASTER. Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Amy Adams. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong sexual references, coarse language and nudity). 137 min.

This is a US film about a veteran, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who is traumatised by his Navy service in World War II, and is being assessed for psychiatric problems. The film is a disturbing, but fascinating, exposé of cult-fanaticism, and has been linked to the current controversy that surrounds Scientology.

Freddie is a drifting psychopath, whose behaviour is fuelled by alcohol, and he has only limited control of his baser instincts. Looking for solace, he discovers a religious movement called, “The Cause”, led by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), The Master, and he commits himself deeply to him.

This is an extraordinary film, beautifully shot, edited, and patterned. The film is much more than an exposé of a religious cult and more than the confrontation between two disturbed people, who need each other. Freddie draws energy from Lancaster, but Lancaster’s messianic delusion feeds on Freddie’s pathology. 

The acting of both Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman is exceptional. Phoenix goes over the top in manifesting the horrors of a psyche out of control, and Hoffman paints an extraordinary portrait of a charismatic, exhibitionistic leader who, knowingly or unknowingly, dupes his worshippers into trusting and believing in his teachings.

It is a thought-provoking movie which raises deep and probing questions about the efforts of some people to try to find comfort and spiritual meaning in their lives. If one can endure its enigmas, and weather the storm of its complexity, this quality film is well worth seeing. It is beautifully acted and directed, and explosively tense in what always seems to be on the verge of happening.

– Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.


The Master (Peter W. Sheehan / Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting)

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