Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman: Paul Thomas Anderson's 'The Master'

By Daniel S Levine,

The loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman is overwhelming. He was by far among the greatest actors of this generation, a man who cared deeply about the roles he played. Audiences could feel him putting everything into what he did, whether it was transforming himself into Truman Capote or playing a worn-out baseball manager. But some of his best roles came for Paul Thomas Anderson. He appeared in all but one of the director's films and his final Oscar nomination came for his stunning turn in 2012's The Master.

In The Master, Hoffman stars as Lancaster Dodd, a man who fashions himself as an expert in everything and the creator of 'The Cause.' It's a cult that follows his message of reinventing oneself in Dodd's image as a perfect person. But the real star of the film is Joaquin Phoenix, who plays the troubled Freddie Quell. Since the end of World War II, he has struggled to find his place in society. Freddie is a born troublemaker, lacking any social skills or understanding of others. His meeting with Dodd changes his life...or does it?

Dodd becomes obsessed with helping Freddie, even as Freddie struggles to get with the program. His wild behavior worries Dodd's followers, including Dodd's lovely (and pregnant) wife Peggy (Amy Adams).

The Master is a tour de force of acting, as all three leads were deservedly nominated for Oscars. Phoenix is gripping as the constantly fidgeting Freddie, whose fits of frequent outrage can come as a shock. Adams is also excellent – as she usually is – as the doting wife who is really a driving force in the group.

Then there's Hoffman, in a stunning, restrained role. It's really one of his great performances and more of a lead, even if the Academy decided it was a supporting part. He's totally convincing as a man who gets a thrill from controlling people, seeing how far he can push them. Perhaps that's what draws him to Freddie, a man he pushes, but doesn't seem to learn anything from his 'exercises.' The beautiful 'processing' sequence at the beginning of the film shows Hoffman's strengths as he reacts to Phoenix's responses to a barrage of questions. Yet, it's the party sequence where Dodd stands up to a critic that is Hoffman's best scene. The 'perfect' man crumbles, as only Hoffman could.

It was disappointing that The Master lost steam during the 2012 awards season, as it failed to draw audiences and drew a mixed response from critics. Now that it's been nearly two years since it debuted at festivals, hopefully it gets reassessed. Anderson put together a thought-provoking film with an unsettling Johnny Greenwood score, sumptuous cinematography and a layered script that reveals more with each viewing. He uses the camera to make the film visually more interesting than a typical dialogue-driven film, putting the camera at unexpected angles.

The Master may be about Freddie Quell's journey and inability to even get along in a society that welcomes him, but Hoffman steals the show throughout as he so often did. Lancaster Dodd really is making 'The Cause' up as he goes along, even if he doesn't believe he is. Phoenix's character is difficult and Hoffman's portrayal of a man desperately trying to control the uncontrollable is captivating. Losing Hoffman's talent is shocking, so relish The Master. He never disappointed and there's never going to be another actor like him.

image: screenshot



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