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Originally published September 20, 2012 at 3:01 PM | Page modified September 21, 2012 at 10:04 AM

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'The Master' is a strange and mesmerizing tale of two men

"The Master," directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, is a strange and mesmerizing tale, though it's not so much about the cult religion of its outsized villain as a movie about searching for somewhere to belong, writes Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald in this review. The film is playing at several Seattle area theaters.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

'The Master,' with Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. 137 minutes. Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language. Several theaters.

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cannot wait to see it. supposedly the film is based on L. Ron Hubbard. Who went to... MORE


MOVIE REVIEW 3.5 stars

Strange and mesmerizing, Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" is the story of two men. Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) is a young Navy veteran, adrift in the years after World War II. Seeking something, anything, to hold on to, he wanders aimlessly, drinking too much (of his own vile homebrewed potions, which include ingredients like paint thinner), seeing too little. One evening, he stows away on a pleasure boat and the next morning meets the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), aka The Master, resplendent in red pajamas — satin or Satan? — and eager to welcome a new member to his nascent religion, The Cause.

"The Master," despite its plotline's tantalizing hints of Scientology, isn't really about cult religions, or about any kind of exploration of how such a group forms. (We're never told much about The Cause before Freddie's arrival.) Instead, it's about searching — in Freddie's case, for somewhere to belong. In the early moments of the film, we see him curled up next to a sand sculpture of a nude woman; he seems to be finding warmth from it. The Cause provides him with a family, most specifically with a father — and, for Dodd, Freddie becomes a son and acolyte.

"We do away with all negative emotional impulses," Dodd intones, and you can see how, for the befuddled Freddie, this would be appealing.

The film then unfolds as a series of scenes between the two as they alternately confront, embrace, and challenge each other; like an adolescent facing a stern parent, it's a relationship in which love and hate intermingle.

Though Anderson uses Amy Adams' angelic presence well as Dodd's Lady Macbeth-ish wife (who knew her eyes could look so terrifying?), this is essentially a two-person movie, with other characters walking around the edges. Phoenix, back in movies with a vengeance, is riveting; he wanders through rooms like a confused prizefighter, head bobbing, ready to attack if need be. His words slur, overlapping like falling dominoes; his face is a map of lines and worry; and he often seems on the verge of tears. Hoffman, who so memorably played a very small man in "Capote," here seems enormous: Dodd is one of those men who draws all eyes to him, schmoozy and florid, sucking the air out of the room. It's fascinating watching the two of them square off; you see how physically different the two men are, and how their acting styles seem to come from very different places.

"The Master" is long and occasionally perplexing; there are mysterious dreamlike sequences, and Jonny Greenwood's ominously strummed score (he also composed the unsettling music for Anderson's "There Will Be Blood") casts another layer of eeriness to an already strange story. But the performances are uncannily good, and seeing Anderson's burnished, sweeping images in vivid 70mm (watch it at Cinerama if you can; that's the only local venue playing "The Master" in that format) is a visual treat. This portrait of 1950s America is like none you've ever seen, and it's unsettling — but the minute it was over, I wanted to watch it again. "The Master, " magnetic as its title character, draws you in, even as you're not quite sure what you're seeing.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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