With the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman, his screen image is even more important to his adoring masses. He was a great actor capable of unbelievable transformations (Truman Capote) and incredibly interesting interpretations of lackluster dialogue (Along Came Polly). I have not commented much on his passing, because I do not think that the world needs yet another tribute to a great man who has died tragically. Let me instead honor him by reviewing one his last performances in the Master.
The Master is a film by the venerable P.T. Anderson. He takes our fascination with L. Ron Hubbard’s cult Scientologists and gives us an impressive portrait of his motives and his personality. While Hoffman’s performance is somewhat based on Hubbard’s life, he is not completely Hubbard. In fact he is Lancaster Dodd. Dodd is a charismatic and jovial middle-aged man who attracts people like moths to a flame. He is at once hilarious, devout and completely in possession of his abilities to persuade. When we finally see Dodd, it is through the eyes of a drunk veteran, Freddie Quell. Quell is played magnificently by Joaquin Phoenix. Quell has been through the ringer for the first twenty minutes of the film. We see him on a World War II ship, making booze out of fuel from a torpedo, placed into a mental institution upon discharge and making booze out of some sort of medical supply, and finally as a photographer in a sanitized department store making booze out of photography processing fluid. Through these different phases, we see that there is something a little bit off about Quell, other than his boozing. He is lost and he doesn’t quite fit in modern society. After a stint in a cabbage farm and possibly poisoning a fellow farmer, he escapes to a boat occupied by Lancaster Dodd. Dodd is immediately fascinated by this erratic figure. He takes him under his wing and submits him to various tests and experiments that he has been developing. In return Quell devotes himself to Dodd and is put under a kind of spell by him. He defends Dodd with his fists against questioners of his theories and police officers accusing him of fraud. Dodd surrounds himself with similar folks like his fiercely loyal wife and daughter. He is encased in a world that takes what he says as pure gospel. Quell integrates himself into this world. But something happens. Something that happens to most people once they see the outside world as it is. He rebels against Dodd and he disappears.
Like all other entries in Anderson’s oeuvre, this movie is masterful. The beautiful cinematography and musical score only highlight this powerful story of devotion and rebellion. Hoffman inhabits Dodd thoroughly and completely. He is Dodd more or less. Whereas Dodd is quiet and methodical, Quell is loud and rough. The juxtaposition of two very different personalities drawn together like this is fascinating to watch. I was struck by how great the two opposites were most thoroughly in the prison scene. Dodd is taken away on fraud charges and put into a cell. Quell fights the police officers in a fit of rage and is therefore imprisoned in the cell next to Dodd. While Dodd stands there quietly awaiting parole from his family, Quell destroys everything within sight. Their relationship is called into question by Quell who doesn’t think that the world is for him. All Dodd says to calm him down is “Who else loves you, except for me?” Now this might not calm you down, but the repeating nature of Dodd’s question inserts itself into Quell’s mind and solidifies. Quell is now certain that he can only be loved by Dodd. In this scene, you not only see great performances, but also the subtle inclination on just how a cult works. They take in the lonely and questioning and make them believe that they can only be loved by the cult itself. It is a great scene. This is a great movie. RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman.