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When a guest at a New York dinner party challenges Dodd to offer some proof of his method, Anderson provides a terrifying peek at what lurks beneath Dodd’s elocution and good manners and reason: Freddie. Dodd’s pot boils profanely over. It’s the tone you’ve heard some politicians take this election cycle when talking to journalists about facts: They’re somebody’s opinion.
You realize in that scene, and in an astonishing later scene in a jailhouse, how much Freddie is the id to Dodd’s rickety superego. Suddenly, a movie that seemed focused on two different men turns into a movie about two different approaches to masculinity — the unvarnished one and the lie. Indeed, it seems that the crucial figure in the Cause is actually Peggy, whose sense of persecution is balanced with hubris, a schoolmarm chirp, and cunning, in a way that only Adams could bring off. Peggy’s control of Dodd is quiet. He’s her silly animal. And she’s increasingly skeptical of Dodd’s pet. There’s the powerful possibility that Freddie is unreachable, that he can’t be quelled by the Cause, that his soul, if he has one at all, is tethered to Earth, that he can aspire no higher than a flask of his poison hooch and sex with a pretty girl, that that’s heaven to him.
But making Freddie see the light becomes an almost cruel family affair. What’s so devastating about “The Master” is how willfully Freddie’s maladies are disserved, never more so than when he spends an afternoon in a Philadelphia manse with his eyes closed, feeling his way from one side of the foyer to the other, from the window to the wall, over and over, undergoing Dodd’s most torturous exercise before a room full of apostles. The repetition is meant to wash his brain, so he can feel a new soul. But he’s just punching wood and slobbering on glass.
It’s fair to see in all of this the origins of a system of belief like Scientology. But the Cause, with its group sessions and personality exercises and retreats into past memories to enhance the present, also strikes me as a stand-in for a different school of belief, for the belief moviegoers place in acting and characters. During that foyer scene, I watched the acolytes watching Freddie, and it reminded me of photos of earnest students watching exercises at the Actors Studio. By the late 1940s and 1950s, Lee Strasberg and the Method had begun to change the way we saw movie acting. It gave the movies a heightened dimension of realism, relying on past memories, ideas of emotional release and control to get a truer, purer performance.
You can see in the two lead actors how much Anderson might have been thinking — if not about Strasberg and, perhaps, Marlon Brando, who rejected Strasberg, then perhaps about the possibility of Dodd as an instructor who senses a kind of actorly greatness in Freddie. That, of course, is what Phoenix provides: concentrated realness. With Phoenix, you’re always worried he might kill himself for a role. At least twice, I thought, “Oh, ouch.” As it is, his face looks unnaturally rumpled, like someone forgot to take him out of the dryer. He gives us the animal Dodd assumes him to be but in a way — as Daniel Day-Lewis did in “There Will Be Blood” — that feels like an art form rawer than acting. Hoffman, who’s worked with Anderson before in smaller roles, puffs himself full of insinuating bluster. If Phoenix’s approach to performing is like a car flying off the road, Hoffman remains sane enough to slow down at yellow lights and stop at reds, even in the moments that Dodd breaks character, even when Hoffman’s doing Methody showboating.
Anderson gives us a figure who wants to be worshiped without skepticism or doubt or reality. You get the feeling that Dodd might want planets and schools of thought named after him but that he’d take less celestial adulation, too. He’d settle for a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.