Joaquin Phoenix

Despite its many virtues, it’s impossible to imagine Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” succeeding without Joaquin Phoenix’s lead performance. Even Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” doesn’t depend as much on its titular figure as “The Master” does on Phoenix’s  freddie Quell, a sex-obsessed alcoholic and war veteran. Indeed, the majority of the film is composed of his interactions with the religious leader Lancaster Dodd, played by a strikingly charismatic Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman deserves accolades for his work here, but the film is ultimately driven by Phoenix; though Anderson has admitted “The Master” was inspired by Scientology and the life of L. Ron Hubbard, his script is less concerned with providing transparent commentary than it is with examining how Quell reacts to Dodd and his promises.

All this means it’s left to Phoenix to show the audience how a troubled soul might approach the prospect of salvation. The answer is not spelled out in Anderson’s elusive, elliptical script; instead, the viewer will have to search for an answer in the way a sullen Phoenix erupts into sudden violence, in the way he hops onto a motorcycle and drives into the distance, in the way his lopsided face turns a sneer into a grimace. Phoenix has stated that he doesn’t care about the Oscars, and he shouldn’t. Even without the prize, this performance is an enduring testament to his singular talent.

—Staff writer Petey E. Menz can be reached at menz@college.harvard.edu.

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