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Review: 'The Master' is artfully composed

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Fri September 14, 2012
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Sutton and Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Lancaster Dodd in
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Sutton and Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Lancaster Dodd in "The Master."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix play characters with a complex relationship
  • The film is the long-awaited follow-up to "There Will Be Blood"
  • Critic calls it the best film unveiled at the Toronto International Film Festival

Editor's note: This review may contain spoilers.

(CNN) -- "We are not animals, we are on a whole different level to that."

So claims Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who describes himself as "many things," including a writer, doctor, a nuclear physicist, and a theoretical philosopher, but also assumes the more presumptuous role of guru and spiritual teacher, even prophet.

If you've heard anything about "The Master," Paul Thomas Anderson's long-awaited follow up to the magnificent "There Will Be Blood," you will know that Dodd is reportedly based on sci-fi novelist and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Hoffman suggests someone more professorial than preacher: an Old World sophisticate with a New World faith in scientific methodology; charismatic, kindly, even utopian, but a charlatan whether he admits it to himself or not. He steadfastly believes in a better world, a higher calling, just so long as it gravitates around him (and always has).

Ironically, "The Master" doesn't. Dodd is by some stretch the secondary role in the film. The protagonist is one Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an Everyman of an especially disheveled, even wretched sort, a lost soul and a drifter who serves in the Navy during World War II and can't get his act together once the war is over.

Phoenix looks skinnier and more gaunt than in his last film, when he played a grotesque, creatively exhausted version of himself in the faux-documentary "I'm Still Here." That was two years ago, and one reason to celebrate "The Master" is simply because it gives us another chance to marvel at this superb actor.

His hair flecked with gray, sneery and sinewy, Phoenix resembles Montgomery Clift and John Garfield: postwar stars who embodied the anxieties and alienation of the returning GIs in male melodramas tinged in varying shades of noir.

Freddie is a ball of nervous energy, agitated and intense, so bottled up with sexual frustration he's ready to pop. He funnels his aggravation into the manufacture of hooch, lovingly concocted from diesel fuel, or paint thinner, or photo chemicals, and imbibed at your own risk.

A stowaway on Dodd's borrowed pleasure steamer, Freddie intrigues the older man: he's the savage beast, a test case for his theories of psychological and spiritual advancement. But there's more to it than that. Lancaster shares Quell's taste for raw alcohol. They are drinking buddies as well as doctor and patient, master and servant, messiah and acolyte ... perhaps even soul mates.

Their relationship disturbs and perplexes Dodd's loyal disciples, including his formidable wife (Amy Adams), who considers Freddie beyond saving but fears that her husband could go the other way. Over the course of several years each man will disappoint the other, yet they struggle to sever whatever it is that binds them.

The most classically minded of America's young filmmakers, and the most prodigious, Anderson draws on John Huston and Elia Kazan, Fred Zinnemann's "From Here to Eternity" and George Stevens' "A Place in the Sun." Even more than in "There Will Be Blood," "The Master" demonstrates a remarkable lucidity and assurance.

Who knows? It may prove to be one of the last movies ever shot and shown on 70mm, but Anderson doesn't go in for epic vistas or the proverbial cast of thousands. The camerawork is artfully composed -- each frame designed with intelligence and care -- but also fluid and self-effacing. It's a long movie, but one that feels cut to the bone. Anderson makes his points so succinctly, and with such subtlety, not a few viewers at the Toronto International Film Festival admitted they felt it would require a second viewing to catch up with it.

Fans of this director -- who has previously gone in for more flamboyant gestures -- may even feel a little disappointed. There's nothing quite so grandstanding as Daniel Day Lewis's infamous milkshake scene, no oil rigs bursting into flame and frogs don't fall from the sky.

But still, this film examines a not dissimilar dynamic to the "There Will Be Blood" love-hate between the priest and the killer, and imbues it with greater sensitivity and depth. Where Day Lewis's Daniel Plainview thirsted for black gold, Freddie Quell has a far different and more reasonable hunger: for love, and peace, just enough to get through this world straight.

Far and away the best American movie unveiled at TIFF, "The Master" also has Weinstein muscle in its marketing. It's still five months to Oscar night, but it will be a surprise if this doesn't earn nominations across the board, with Phoenix a front-runner for best actor and Hoffman just a step behind him.

In the end it may not have the emotional uplift the Academy or a popular mainstream audience craves, but make no mistake, this is an enthralling drama about a peculiarly American restlessness, and the striving for insight and grace.

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