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Joaquin Phoenix returns to the big screen in ‘The Master.’

Jonathan Crow
Movie Talk
July 20, 2012

It's been two years since Joaquin Phoenix was last on the silver screen and that was for the truly puzzling faux documentary "I'm Still Here," about his unlikely transition from Oscar-winning actor to hip hop artist.  That movie featured him getting into fights, abusing drugs, and generally acting crazy.

For his comeback film "The Master," directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Phoenix plays Freddie Sutton, an acolyte for a Scientology-like religious organization founded by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). As you can see in the movie's exclusive trailer below, Phoenix gets into fights, abuses alcohol, and generally acts crazy.

[Related: Indie Roundup: 'Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai']

The Master
The Master

Just like two previous teaser spots for the movie, the trailer is a disjointed montage of swatches of dialogue juxtaposed with some striking, if mysterious, imagery. The effect is strangely unsettling. But this time, we can make out some contours of the plot.

At the trailer's opening, we see Sutton making a poor transition from the Navy back to civilian life. We see him enduring one menial job after another, guzzling alcohol from a beaker, and choking a heavyset man in a suit. He's a toxic combination of angry, drunk, and lost.

Then he crosses paths with Dodd, who describes himself as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but, above all, I'm a man." Sutton, a drifter, seems impressed by him, and something in Sutton seems to inspire Dodd. Soon, Dodd takes Sutton under his wing, intoning that he will urge him "toward existence within a group, a society, a family." That group seems to include a fabulous boat, a sense of belonging, and the company of a grabby blonde.

[Related: Indie Roundup: 'The Imposter' and 'Easy Money']

Eventually, Sutton's faith in Dodd and in the group falters. Dodd's son Val tells him, "He's making all this up as he goes along. You don't see that?" His comment hits Sutton like punch to the gut.

P.T. Anderson has remained mum about whether or not this movie is based on Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, but more than a few people have noted the similarities. Dodd, like Hubbard, is a writer who started a religion on a boat in the early 1950s, and some people refer to that religion as a cult.  Scientology critic Marc Headley has even listed 22 points where the story overlaps with actual Scientologist history in the Daily Beast after reading an early draft of the script. Of course, we have no idea how much of that draft will end up in the final cut.

Whether or not this is a thinly veiled swipe at Hubbard and company, "The Master" is one of the most anticipated movies of the fall. And if this trailer is representative of the whole, then the film will easily meet the wildly high expectations of movie mavens everywhere.

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