‘Extreme’ characters fuel the plot of ‘The Master’

by George Hadley-Garcia

Special To The Japan Times

Critics have called “The Master” a triumph of style over substance. That is, the acting wins out over direction and writing.

The trio of principal actors: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams, were all nominated for Academy Awards. Director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood,” “Magnolia”), however, was passed over by Oscar.

“You know going into a film by Paul Thomas Anderson that it’s going to be his very own personal vision,” Adams tells The Japan Times. “He chooses intriguing topics or characters and … runs with them.”

At 144 minutes, and shot using expensive 65-mm film, the movie is a lengthy run. One scene of around 20 minutes involves Hoffman’s character Lancaster Dodd, the founder of a cult he calls The Cause, in a “processing session” with his acolyte Freddie Quell, played by Phoenix. The lengthy scene lends credence to those who claim Anderson is self-indulgent and lacks a sense of timing and the need to please his audience.

However, in his review for The Japan Times on March 23, film critic Giovanni Fazio considered the possibility that “The Master” may age well, citing Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” as an example of another such film.

“For me,” Adams continues, “this was a chance to explore a historic period, one that you still hear a lot about. (The film) looks at the 1950s in (the United States) and all the paranoia and fears, the pressure toward social conformity, and the narrowness of politics and religion back then.”

When Anderson first announced the project, it was assumed he would base Dodd on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and that the movie, about a master manipulator and his ideal victim, would be an expose of the organization.

Officially the film is not about Scientology, though at times Dodd definitely seems patterned on Hubbard.

“I don’t think Paul ever wanted or intended to do an out-and-out biography of Hubbard,” says Hoffman, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of writer Truman Capote in the 2005 biopic “Capote.”

“Apart from any possible hassles, I’m aware that most filmed biographies come in for more than their share of nitpicking about realism and accuracy. I think Paul found the relationship more fascinating than the figure. The movie, for me, hinges not so much on Dodd himself as Dodd’s relationship with Freddie. Their relationship in one sense is a microcosm of such a man’s relationships with all his followers. It can symbolize how devotees choose to relate and give themselves over to a father figure who tells them how to think and live.

“But it’s also a very particularized relationship between two unique individuals. Now, how unique is Dodd? There are always figures like him who seek power and wealth and will use any means to do it. Guys who pull the wool over the eyes of others who can’t see through such men’s charm and guile and … just their seeming convincingness.”

As Hoffman suggests, the movie revolves primarily around the relationship with Freddie, a naval officer in the Pacific during World War II. The bizarre, troubled character affords eccentric actor Phoenix a chance to wallow in emotion and excess.

“Sometimes, when (Hoffman) would turn the volume up, I’d turn around and turn mine up,” Phoenix says. “We got into some pretty big, loud acting there in some scenes.”

One criticism of “The Master” is that the script is sometimes cliche. However, Phoenix argues, “The words are one thing, but it’s really how you do them. How are you expressing yourself through the dialogue? Any line can be said any number of ways.”

The way the actors choose to perform is often raw and can sometimes seem overwrought.

“Extreme characters tend to bring out the extremes inside of actors that usually we repress,” Adams says. “It’s an opportunity for us to let it all out. It’s sort of cathartic.”

Like the charismatic founders of many cults and movements, Dodd purports to offer a cure to what ails the human soul (and the body, he also claims he can cure cancer). Therefore the desperate seek him out. Freddie is an alcoholic, prone to depression, has minimal self-discipline, is sexually insatiable and apt to break out into unprovoked fits of rage.

“Freddie is a classic lost soul,” says Phoenix, whose last major film was “Walk the Line” in 2005, in which he played troubled country singer Johnny Cash. “Maybe his life is such a mess, he’s looking for someone to fix it.”

Dodd also appears to act like a father figure to the rootless Freddie, but as Phoenix offers, “In a way, every older guy is a father figure, if you let him be … like, if he gives you rules and you follow them. But that’s what people in religion do, too.”

Hoffman mentions that the movie is partly about brainwashing, which, “Unlike the wartime version we’ve seen on screen is probably a hell of a lot easier when the subject is ready and willing. You might say it’s a case of an eager oppressor finding a perfect victim. They fit, that way.”

What they need to fit, though, is for Freddie to offer himself over completely to Dodd — with obedience and devotion.

“I think it’s a case of one extreme meeting another,” Adams says. “Sometimes it’s the wildest characters, like Freddie, that underneath are the ones who most want to have discipline and order in their lives. They can be particularly vulnerable to controlling movements like The Cause and strong personalities like Dodd.

“I think this movie can be a warning to many people nowadays … I mean some young people who may be confused or aimless and are too trusting. Sometimes, when a character like Dodd takes an interest in them, they feel flattered that someone important is giving them time and attention, because they don’t realize the actual reason — ego and an exercise of power.”

Hoffman offers a more political take, “It’s about fascism, in a way. One would-be leader who wants everyone to follow him and be alike. Only he is allowed to be different, and of course above the rest.”

The complexity of the characters doesn’t stop at the two male leads. Adams’ role as Dodd’s wife, Peggy, offers just as much intrigue. How does she analyze her character?

“A very 1950s wife,” she says. “I’ve sometimes wondered about wives of rich or important men who are basically bad men … yet the wives follow right along that path. Obviously those women decided that regardless of the harm these men do, they’re going to cling to that, give up their own scruples, and offer blind allegiance — motivated, of course, by a rich lifestyle, but also out of selfish ambition for their kids.

“There are still plenty of women like that. One example would be the wife of any dictator.”

Asked what it’s like to work with Anderson as a director, Phoenix says, “It can get to be, yeah, stimulating. He doesn’t box you in. You get to go with the flow.”

Though the film, with its dark characters, hasn’t fared well with most audiences, Adams proposes, “It’s a very individual movie that offhand I can’t think of another to compare it to.”

She says that though the film takes place in the past, many of the situations are still present in society. She notes the rich heiress played by actress Laura Dern, who can’t see through Dodd’s facade and continues to give him money, which enables him to continue his behavior.

“It’s a character-driven movie, more than a fast-plotted story,” Adams says. “I think Philip and Joaquin turned in really memorable performances. I don’t imagine it’s a film or an acting exercise the viewer is soon likely to forget,” she giggles.

“The Master” is now showing. For more information, visit www.themasterfilm.com.