The outstanding performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are mesmeric and since its more of a character profile than a movie with an unfolding plot that’s just as well. The lack of a defined story arc would have been alright if it had been shorter and didn’t drift like scrambled eggs across a frying pan. My own edgy hankering for a bacon sandwich, or some such naughty nicety, overtook my better efforts to stay focused for the last hour.
Lancaster Dodd – the ‘Master’ played by Hoffman is loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology movement. He’s slick, charismatic and self assured, describing himself as ” a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man…” On befriending Freddie Quell (Phoenix) – a loner, back from the Vietnam war with little prospects, a penchant for making cocktails and a fierce temper – he commits to trying to treat him with a series of ‘processing’ exercises. One quick-fire question and answer session is painful to watch but fast forwards our understanding of his ‘patient’. Their relationship wavers along, peppered by Quell’s angry outbursts and fits of violence. His desperation for sex, which is a running subtext, left me on edge and primed my expectation for either a rape or a murder.
The less heated exchanges between Dodd and his circle of devotees are as compelling to observe. Gormless, wealthy and predominantly female followers seem more committed to the cause than he and his family talk like robots in a trance. (I’m all set to watch the Stepford Wives again.)
Discordant music and close-ups of character’s faces give an uneasy claustrophobic feel and for me,